R. K. Narayan | Critical Essay by Prajapati P. Sah

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
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Critical Essay by Prajapati P. Sah

SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan's 'Gateman's Gift': The Central Theme," in Literary Criterion, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1980, pp. 37-46.

In the following essay, Sah asserts that the central theme of Gateman's Gift is Govind Singh's role as a socio-economic animal.

What is the central theme of R. K. Narayan's story "Gateman's Gift"?

In asking this question I assume that a good story is written not purely for entertainment, or for the sake of an interesting and amusing description of an event or a character, but for communicating something to the reader over and above the simple facts of description. By this I do not mean that every good story has a 'message' or a 'moral,' but I do mean that every good story has a perception of reality—be it social or individual, and this is the writer's own perception which he wants to communicate to the reader. The reader of course is at liberty to read the story at any level he likes, and in most cases it may not include the level of the writer's perception of reality, but a good story does not become a good story till it includes this level.

When asked to describe the central theme (the main idea, the motivating factor, the writer's intended communication, of "Gateman's Gift," students often quote the opening sentence of the story which is a layman's statement of the psychological principle of suggestion:

'When a dozen persons question openly or slyly a man's sanity, he begins to entertain serious doubts himself.'

It takes some time to disabuse the students' minds of the idea that a story is not written to illustrate or 'prove' a principle, whether the principle is a psychological one or a sociological, economic, or scientific one. A story is written because a writer comes across some event, character, episode, etc., in his experience which suddenly forces into his attention some half-recognized truth about the reality of the mental, physical, or social world with a fresh and renewal urgency. The truth may concern any of the various areas which impinge on man's existence—his relations with himself or a transcendental power, his relations with fellow human beings, his position in the psychological, sociological or economic universes of which he is a part, or his relation with the physical universe including nature. Each writer differs in his choice of the areas according to temperament or historical circumstances. R. K. Narayan, for whom the world of social relations is as important as the inner universe of man and who often reaches great heights in depicting the interaction of the two, is a man of comprehensive vision. For an incidental reader this comprehensive vision often tends to get lost in the rich details of person, place and circumstance which first entitled Narayan to the high critical attention as a novelist that he attracted. But, for me at least, the loss in missing the wood for the trees in the case of R. K. Narayan is as great in significance as perhaps it was in those cases of loftier concern for which the metaphor was first devised.

In "Gateman's Gift" too, it is easy to lose one's way in the detail. Having dismissed the psychological suggestion theory, one still has to tackle proposals like the following: the complex character of Govind Singh, the subtle psychological workings of his mind which lead him finally to give up making toys—a depiction of this is the author's main concern. And, of course, there is the chiaroscuro of characters—the invisible business-like Bank Manager with a God-like presence hovering on the scene, the affable and genial Accountant, and the whole lot of very visible bank workers that crowd around Govind Singh's every work of art. The answer is not quite satisfactory: psychology is, of course, present, but it is not mere psychology. Narayan is not interested in complex characters for their own sake, for basically he is a writer, not a psychologist. He is too much interested in the society to be completely absorbed into the psyche of the individual—and this of course is no original statement about Narayan. In any case, psychology alone never made a writer a significant one.

Is it then a sociological study? Are we being invited to witness the effects of class-division? Is it a study of the undesirable effects of premature retirement on able-bodied (and may be not so able-bodied) men with too much leisure? The absurdity of these suggestions becomes quite apparent if we ask the simple question 'Do these factors, either alone or jointly, explain the powerful effect the story has on the reader?'

I do not think one needs to labour the obviously negative answer to this question. Whence does, then, arise the power of the story, the absolute authenticity of the totally unexpected conclusion which signals the unfailing touch of a master? In what follows, I shall attempt to provide an answer.

The answer that I provide to the question raised at the beginning of [the essay] is stated briefly as follows:

The central theme of "Gateman's Gift" is neither the psychological working of Govind Singh's mind nor the sociological factors which perhaps give rise to them, nor both of these together; and of course, it is not the psychological principle of suggestion. The central theme of "Gateman's Gift" is the tragedy and the irony involved in man's perennial (and perennially unsuccessful) efforts to break free of the vice-like grip in which the attitudes, his own and those of others in the society, born of the social and socio-economic institution of man's own creation, hold him permanently.

Having made this ponderous-sounding pronouncement, let me explain why I think there may be a grain of truth hidden under these ponderous coverings which a better stylistician may succeed in expressing more simply and elegantly.

Sociologists tell us that man is a social animal, and they sometimes put it as if there were an element of necessity in man's social character. I need not labour the point, since I think most people will agree that the social character of man's existence is an offshoot of the purely contingent desire on most people's part for a reasonably peaceful and happy, and reasonably long span of survival. The acceptance of social, or socio-economic, institutions, and the willingness to let one's attitudes and beliefs be maximally shaped and determined by the requirements imposed by such institutions, certainly characterise the behaviour of most people most of the time, but equally certainly they do not characterise the behaviour of all the people all the time. If they did, human existence would be much poorer, and the nobler aspirations of man would find no expression. Literature, art, philosophy, and music would either not exist or would have different meanings. Life would be wholly mechanical and the distinction of mind and matter, with the full range of its consequences, would not have been thought of.

However, the fact remains that man needs socio-economic institutions and they are essential, if not indispensable, for his survival. And since they are so important, they cannot but shape his mental and emotional life too. In fact, it should not surprise us if most people, most of the time, think, feel, and react as if the social compulsions of man were necessary and not contingent. It is enough for the purposes of our argument that some people most of the time and most people some of the time do not think, feel, and react in this way. Among some people who do not, I would include poets, artists, musicians, painters, and some novelists and philosophers. There may be others, even among lay people, who deserve to be included in this list but generally, lay people would fall in the second category (most people—some of the time).

In the context of the present story, I will need to say very little about the first category. I will not take up discussion of the point, which someone may well raise, in what sense can the efforts of the persons falling in the first category be said to be 'perennially unsuccessful', although the pervading disenchantment and sense of loss which characterises the world of art and literature may well be traced to it. More significantly, the queer logic of the human situation by which tragedy, loss, and failure have, over the years, come to be associated with the noblest efforts in art, literature, music, and philosophy indicates a possible explanation along the above lines. It is possible that arguing along these lines we may come to the paradoxical conclusion that all great works in art and literature are failures, and may even say that the greater the failure the greater the work of art. The paradox would be more apparent then real, for there is a level where great works of art are great successes and there is a level where they are great failures. And if the greatness of a failure is to be measured by the greatness of the efforts, it may also be true that the greater the failure the greater the work of art.

But I must return to my immediate concern. The theme of "Gateman's Gift" is concerned with the people of the second category, ordinary people who in the very simplicity of their existence are creatures of the socio-economic institutional framework, which once created, exists independently of their will. It is to this level of existence that all the characters in the story belong—Govind Singh himself, the Bank Manager, the Accountant and the whole lot of bank workers that hover in the background. A sociological explanation may try to make much of the distinction of economic class between the gateman and the Bank Manager, but it is important to realize that in the writer's perception they both belong to the same level of existence: both are in the vice-like grip of the socio-economic framework; the reactions of both, and the perceptions which determine these reactions, are determined by their relative positions and orientation in the same framework, and they both behave mechanically according to the standards for their positions prescribed by that overriding framework.

Till, that is, one of them, gateman Govind Singh, breaks through the constricting hold of the framework (with of course only as much willed effort on his part as was involved in his acquiescence in the framework in the first place). Part of the irony also arises from the fact that even the effort to break free is not always so much of an effort, but a compulsion, the real nature of which is not clear even to the agent. In fact, the realization of its real nature may never come to the 'agent' at all. As with Govind Singh, he may simply follow the urge, not realizing that he is set on a collision course with the societal framework and his own 'social' nature; the 'realization' finally comes in the form of the actual collision, when only two possibilities remain open: either, if he is 'lucky', the collision is a 'beneficial' one in the sense that it corrects his deviation from the orbit, and he is again safely back in his original position with little 'harm' done; or, if he is 'unlucky', the collision may destroy him. It is another matter that the greatest successes in art and literature are often the results of such 'malevolent' collisions.

What is the nature of Govind Singh's breakthrough? Having had spent twenty five years of his active life in passive acquiescence in the societal system, Singh his little awareness of the special gift with which he is endowed—that of toy-making. It is no small indictment of the dehumanizing nature of the framework that, fixed in its well-oiled grooves, a man may never discover the creative side of his personality. It is only when retirement from service brings a major one of Govind Singh's lifewheels to a stop, that he has time and opportunity to discover his true talent, the fulfilment of which would have been considered the major objective in a system which gave priority to man's freedom. Such an unconstrained system being somewhat inconceivable, one could even settle for a slightly less fair system which would at least allow people who wish to follow their creative urge, as and when they wish it, to do so without thereby setting them on a collision course with the system. But in the system in which we live, even that is almost inconceivable.

One may well ask what prevented Govind Singh from following his creative urge unimpeded? He was retired and had all the leisure he wanted; his work was admired by the people among whom he had lived and whose opinion he valued, and since he did not very much care for financial rewards, (and was anyway getting a pension), what was it that eventually forced him to the conclusion that 'doll-making was no occupation for a sane man'? In what way, one may particularly ask, can one hold the societal system responsible for the break-up of Singh's mental life? One may discover a lack of understanding on the part of the Bank Manager, who, a perfectly satisfied cog in a machine, reacts in an absolutely predictable style to Singh's offerings, and is in actual fact responsible for the registered letter which was the immediate cause of the breakdown. But even if we grant it that the Bank Manager was either a fool, or a perfect product of the system (inasmuch as he was never 'without' it), to have been unable to appreciate that when you enter the temple of the Muse, you leave your sociological ribbons of 'status' and 'role' outside, even if one grants it, is it sufficient to explain the derangement of Singh's mental faculties?

My answer is 'No.' There is a telling passage in the story which gives us the clue. When the Accountant reads out the contents of the Manager's appreciatory letter, couched though it is in the typically official language which the Bank Manager after years of grinding in the well-oiled grooves of the institutional machine wears as the voice of his soul, Singh is not elated: 'He beat his brow and wailed'. Why? After all, Singh was an illiterate, who 'scrawled' his signature and needed to have the letter read out to him, and the officialese would not matter to him, and at any rate, the letter carried the sanction of a very concrete reward of one hundred rupees which in an ordinary person of Singh's status would have condoned many a greater vice. Why then did Singh not jump for joy and who was he not shaken out of his mad state?

The clue lies in the remaining part of the incomplete quotation: 'He beat his brow and wailed: Tell me, Sir, am I mad or not?' And when the affable Accountant assures him that he does not look at all mad. 'Singh fell at his feet and said with tears choking his voice, 'You are a god, Sir, to say that I am not mad. I am so happy to hear it', and on the next pension day he turns up as spruce as ever at the office counter firmly convinced that doll-making is 'no occupation for a sane man.'

The tragedy and the irony of it! Even the well-meaning Bank Manager must have been baffled by the outcome of his generous gesture and it would perhaps remain as one of the numerous mysteries of life and character which his well-trained mind has learned to shut out in a corner till the flames of the funeral pyre reach them. For if even Singh himself, who had 'reached out to infinity', even if for the briefest while, could fail to take the measure of the divine stirrings in him, what chance did the lowly Bank Manager stand in this game, which is played not by the sociological counters of status and role where he could beat Singh hollow, but where the soul of man in God's image talks to its maker across the heavens in a tone of equality?

But leave the Bank Manager to his fate, and ask of Singh: What was the nature of his 'beneficial' collision with the societal system which sent him spinning back to his 'right' orbit—the orbit no longer that of a gateman, for which one could find a few mitigating things to say, but that of an ex-gateman! Truly enough, Singh lives off the pension he has earned during his active life as a gateman both financially and spiritually! When you have lived most of your life pretending that eternity does not exist, and you have been well-rewarded for doing so, an encounter with eternity must be the most frightening thing that can happen to you. Singh had all his life stuck to the societal role assigned to him; he had done well; his work as a gateman had been appreciated. In this role, he had followed the rules meticulously: he was always smart and alert, but most relevantly, he had maintained his distance from the Bank Manager. The Bank Manager was like a God to him; sitting behind multiple layers of walls and floors in his sanctum sanctorum. When he moved out, he took a few quick steps, ringed by his underlings as if the fresh air would foul him, and was promptly enclosed again in the safety of the car, and you could hear him heave a sigh of relief as if the exposure had been an avoidable danger. During all this, Singh's role was only to present a smart salute from a distance which perhaps the Sahib acknowledged with a barely perceptible movement of his hand. During the twenty five years of Singh's service, the Sahib had spoken to him only twice—and, mind it, it was the Sahib who had spoken to him, he had never dared speak to the Sahib! He knew what his role required of him, and he observed the rules. As a result, he led a smooth life, quite undisturbed by any registered letters, those harbingers of disaster which the lawyers specialize in sending. But, come retirement, and his insane dabbling in doll-making, and the corrupting admiration of the bank people, Singh was beset with vanity, ahamkara, and he dared do what he had never dared in the twenty five years of life as a gateman: he tried to bridge the gulf their respective social roles as a gateman and Bank Manager imposed between them by sending gifts to the god! How dared he think that the lowly creations of his menial hands could merit the attention of the mighty Bank Manager! He did not even stop at that! The foolish admiration showered on his work by the ignorant office-workers egged him on to ask if the Bank Manager had liked his work! Egged on further by the 'stock reply' of the Accountant, 'He said it was very good.'—one more corrupting influence sending his ahamkara soaring—he dared the ultimate profanity, he made a model of the office frontage in which—horror of horrors—he modelled himself alongside the great god! What check! What defiance! Has anyone ever broken so many rules, such profundity of barriers, at one stroke without paying for it? Can the society, at one stroke, go back to its origins and forget the history of so many thousands of years? Can you strip the man naked and say that civilization has given him no coverings of custom and hierarchy? True enough, poets and artists do often try the impossible, but has not tradition neutralized and sequestered them? In the business of living, what role do they play? Great sages, philosophers, and saints wasted years in penance so that men may see each other as human beings, but did not tradition apotheosise them till they became the sanction for the very things they had forbidden? And where so many great men had failed, could an ordinary gateman, and that one too motivated by the lowest of motives, that of ahamkara, succeed? The very idea was preposterous.

Retribution comes in the form of the registered letter. It is a visitation from a different world; an emissary from the nether world come to wreak vengeance on Singh for his sins against the social system. He crumbles and cringes before it: 'Please take it back, I don't want it', but the punishment for 'wrongdoing' and for violating the system from which one has drawn nourishment is not so easily evaded. The emissary follows him like a spectre: it will not be exorcised and it will not reveal its secret. One hardly needs to say that the spectre, in Singh's eyes, is actually his own sins come home to roost. He has violated the code of the society; he has tried to reach above his station, he had dared glimpse man in the 'primitive' state of absolute equality. And the price must be paid.

Thus it is that the social-economic institutions of our own creation establish their absolute mastery over us: they rule us through ourselves. We are free, if we so claim, only with their permission. We may enjoy this conditional freedom, but no more. Even to try to get a glimpse of what lies beyond is to invite retribution, and the retribution comes to us not through an agency outside, but from ourselves. We are our worst enemies.

But this is of course to view it from the outsider's viewpoint. For the reformed Singh, as for most people, the brief period of his encounter with infinity, the short exposure to humanity in its essence, is the period of insanity, of excruciating pain and disaster. From such encounters, people rarely return whole to 'sanity', but Singh's encounter had barely begun, and the presence of the-gateman-for-twenty-five-years was much too overpowering. He managed to return to 'normalcy'—the normalcy not of course of a human being, but of an ex-gateman!

"Gateman's Gift" is a sad story, for it reminds us that it is our destiny to live against our true selves, that man must remain a creature of the socio-economic convention, that we must always play games till the soul becomes estranged with itself and speaks a voice which it itself does not recognise, till, in brief, our whole existence becomes phoney. If, in the midst of all this darkness, there is any reason for living, it is that the defeat does not crush man, and though one Govind Singh may be vanquished and crushed, other Govind Singhs will arise and keep up their defiance of the abominable principle that man is a socio-economic animal and necessarily so.

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