"The Reluctant Guru": R.K. Narayan and The Guide

Introduction:  Redefining Narayan

The common view of Narayan is that of a supreme ironist, who with his gentle humor exposes the absurdities of our situation.  Noted critic M. K. Naik wrote a whole book celebrating Narayan’s ironic vision (see Works Cited).  Indeed, most readers, especially Western ones, notice and admire Narayan’s inconspicuous deflation of characters and conditions.  Even his language and style are part of this subterfuge.  Not for him the somber or eloquent high rhetoric that we are used to in India; we hardly find in his work the discourse of the sublime, the serious, and the mystic.  Instead, plain almost flattened English, pared down to the bare communicative essentials, is offered. As V. Y. Kantak astutely observes of the typical Narayan period, “The sentence has a certain structural monotony.  It is always the same subject-predicate-object-complement ensemble with a few subsidiary appendages of phrase or clause and the occasional inversion … and yet this one stringed instrument suffices for Narayan’s purpose” (149).  In other words, this bareness, this minimalism suggest something else, something more whimsical if not witty, certainly the quality in Narayan that makes us smile or chuckle when we read him.  This “something else” that makes Narayan so celebrated and admired is supposedly his comic muse, which deals with ordinary or less than ordinary people. With remarkably tempered understatement, Narayan draws us into the worlds of these timid protagonists, usually contrasted by their stronger, more assertive female counterparts.  Some confusion or disturbance occurs in their settled rhythms of life; it is this turbulence or annoyance and its eventual resolution that most of these novels record.  The puzzle of Narayan’s modest art is best summed up by Kantak in another essay called “R. K. Narayan’s Fiction:  A Poser to Criticism”:

How do we go about assessing Narayan’s achievement?  His very simplicity, his naiveté seems to set a problem.  There is so little on which to expatiate intellectually, analyze, expound, fathom the depth of.  And yet the naiveté of Narayan has a quality that haunts us as only art can ….  Meagre means, scanty resources, thinness of tone, couldn’t surely put on such manifest power! … Narayan with his penny whistle seems to have wrought more than most others with their highly pretentious and obstreperous brass! (21).

Most admired not for his action, plot, or style, but for the gentle irony and comedy in his writing, Narayan has eluded most critics when it comes to the real secret of his power as an artist.  From his first, and I should add foremost reader, Graham Greene, to the respected critic of commonwealth literature, William Walsh, most Westerners have enjoyed and praised his mild and amiable humor or his curious comic style.  With such a meager repertoire, he supposedly writes harmless social comedies about modern India in the small and non-descript fictional town of Malgudi.  But is this a true image of Narayan?

There are clues here and there that Narayan’s project may be something quite different from what most readers perceive at first.  V Panduranga Rao in a very perceptive essay called “The Art of R. K. Narayan” published as early as 1968 says,

Narayan’s vision is essentially moral, for the problems he sets himself to resolve in his novels are largely ethical.  This is not to underplay the comic irony of an artist much admired by critics in the West; on the contrary it is his comic vitality that humanizes Narayan’s grand vision. The elusive charm of his success is the direct result of a rare combination of comic sense and religious sensibility.  (99-100)


Indeed, there has been a strain in Narayan criticism that has tended to emphasize the religious or mystical aspects of Narayan’s work (see for instance Campbell, Kirpal, Rothfork in Works Cited). Margaret Berry, who pays a great deal of attention to Narayan’s Introduction to Gods, Demons and Others, actually goes to the extreme of trying to prove that Narayan’s fiction presents some kind of transcendental wisdom of the Absolute better than any other Indian English novelist.  Such a view of Narayan has, however, remained subordinate or secondary to the more common and widely accepted notion of Narayan’s being a mild and pleasantly entertaining comic genius.

It was left not to critics, but to fellow-novelist V. S. Naipaul to notice Narayan’s difference from his postcolonial peers.  In India:  A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul recognizes with an uncanny astuteness that a deeply conservative Hindu worldview underpins Narayan’s comedy.  Stated in his dramatic and uncompromising fashion, V. S. Naipaul’s “discovery” hits the reader with an equal force: 

I did not lose my admiration for Narayan but I felt that his comedy and irony were a part of a Hindu response to the world, a response that I could no longer share.  And it has … become clear to me … that for all their delight in human oddity, Narayan’s novels are less the purely social comedies I had once taken them to be than religious books, at times religious fables, and intensely Hindu. (12-13)

I believe Naipaul exaggerates.  He is wont to do so.  Perhaps, many of his observations would lose their appearance of startling originality if he didn’t.  It would be more accurate to suggest that Narayan’s irony is a mask if not disguise of what is in actuality a rather complex outlook to life, an outlook that can certainly not be subsumed under the ubiquitous category of the “modern.”  That is why, though Naipaul’s remarks have been often repeated, it takes a critic like Geoffrey Kain to put them into perspective:

While I am not convinced that this observation applies equally to each of Narayan’s novels, it usefully alerts the reader to the centrality of Hindu traditionalism in Narayan’s work, especially as that traditionalism is challenged by characters who entertain a more ‘modern,’ more overtly individualistic values.  Interestingly, a number of Narayan’s prominent characters work to resist traditional religious and familial duties or expectations (dharma) then inadvertently or (seemingly) fortuitously fall into roles that exemplify the very values or lifestyles they reject.   (101)

In other words, what triumph in Narayan’s world are these timeless codes and norms that to all appearances have been supplanted by modernity, but in reality have retained their capacity to reassert themselves in the daily lives of their at-first unaware protagonists.  It is precisely these cultural mores that Narayan spent considerable time in understanding and narrating in his retellings of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other myths of India.


Narayan and Modernity

That is why I would venture to suggest that what transpires in The Guide, and in fact in many of R. K. Narayan’s novels, may be described as a special kind of intervention in the ongoing problematic of Indian modernity. By modernity I mean the new kind of subjectivity and society that emerged in India after the impact of British imperialism.  Though one component of this impact was Enlightenment rationality, science, and Western knowledge, Indian modernity was not merely a copy of Western modernity.  That is because modern India emerged out of the complex struggle between colonialism and nationalism.  Though influenced by West, Indian modernity marks its own distinct path.  This path, as I have argued elsewhere extensively (see Decolonization and Development:  Hind Svaraj Revisioned), consists in taking critical aspects of Western modernity and trying to combine them with India’s usable past.  But because both Western modernity and Indian traditions have multiple possibilities and processes, the self-constitution of India’s modernity becomes a plural and diverse adventure rather than any simplistic supplanting of tradition with modernity or the revival of tradition at the expense of modernity.  Indian modernity is thus neither anti-traditional nor necessarily pro-Western.  It is, instead, a complex interplay of multitudinous forces which are sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory.  Reform, revival, resistance, conflict, collusion, collaboration, capitulation, compromise, adoption, adaptation, synthesis, encapsulation, hybridity, and multiculturalism are all a part of the Indian’s experiment in modernization.  I believe that Narayan’s novels help define what is different about Indian modernity.  I would like to argue that these books not only reflect the course of India’s recent social and cultural evolution, but actively articulate and arbitrate its various attitudes and stances.

At first, it would seem that Narayan is an unlikely actor in such a project.  It would be far-fetched to describe his novels as insurgent interventions or postcolonial protests against dominant versions of modernity.  Yet, in a novel such as Waiting for the Mahatma, perhaps Narayan’s most overtly political novel, there is a clear indication that Narayan is a full-fledged participant in the mission of the Indian nation state.  The novel clearly shows that the political is the personal.  Sriram and Bharathi, the protagonists, both of whose names are unmistakably symbolic, cannot consummate their relationship until India is free:  even the scope of romantic love is severely crippled under the sign of colonialism.  Narayan’s abiding, if deprecating involvement in the self-making of India is also evidenced in his voluminous minor non-fictional writing, most of it in the form of newspaper columns.  Here Narayan’s constant engagement with the quotidian realities of contemporary India is most palpable.  John Updike noticed this quality in his review of My Days, one of the collections of such writings:  “Narayan is one of a vanishing breed—the writer as citizen.  His citizenship extends to calling up municipal officials about inadequate street lighting, to dashing off virile letters to newspapers about corruption and inefficiency” (38-39).  It is reported that Narayan endorsed Updike’s assessment:  “I am particularly interested by the point Updike makes about the writer as citizen since I feel exactly the same way” (Pontes 19).  Citizen Narayan received perhaps his highest possible recognition when the nation that he tried to serve nominated him to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament.  Of course, it is another matter that he hardly raised any issues during his tenure.  Characteristically, when he did speak out, it was to make his famous plea to Indian lawmakers to reduce the massive burden of schoolbooks that every Indian school boy or girl is forced to shoulder daily.

In most his novels, however, Narayan’s concerns as a citizen-writer are voiced in a much more complex manner.  Instead of taking the form of columns on civic failures or letters to newspapers, they work themselves out through his characters and their conflicts.  This is how Narayan’s novels show India negotiating the complex terrain of the modern.  Malgudi, in that sense, becomes a laboratory where various possibilities and positions are tried out.  With such a view, I propose to examine The Guide, undoubtedly Narayan’s best-known novel, as a narrative of modern India.  More specifically, I shall argue that it is about the nature of an ancient Indian institution, that of the Guru.  Indeed, this word, Guru, has no exact English counterpart.  R. K. Narayan’s use of the slightly lighter, slightly more frivolous, and certainly more ambiguous word, “guide,” is therefore telling.  The central question for such a reading of the novel is precisely whether The Guide undermines in Narayan’s famously ironic manner, the idea and the institution of the Guru, of a man or woman who attains to a higher state of consciousness and is therefore able to lead others?  Or does it, despite such an undermining, eventually reinforce it?  This question is by no means casual or trivial because it suggests a larger method of dealing with the entire corpus of Narayan and how it engages with India’s modernity.  I approach these questions by making some of Narayan’s autobiographical and non-fictional essays “talk” to his fictional texts, besides bringing in other information and narratives into the discussion. 


The “Reluctant Guru”

To pursue such an inquiry, we shall have to go back to spring 1969, when Narayan was a Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.  When he stepped into his very first class, he found himself confronted with a bevy of elderly lades, each brandishing a copy of The Guide in her hand!  Here Narayan invites comparison with another famous Indian English author, Raja Rao.  At the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught philosophy for nearly twenty years, Rao was known to simply enter the classroom and say, “Ask me any question you like.”  The class would take off from there.  As bewildered as an average teacher might be when confronted with this rather unorthodox pedagogical ploy, I once asked Raja Rao, “Could they really ask you any thing they liked?”  He said with a smile, “Any question at all, anything under the sun.”  “What if you didn’t know the answer?” I persisted, unsure of how any teacher could dare to take such a risk.  He replied, in all seriousness, “Oh but the answers always came.  I may not have known them, but I would meditate on my Guru, and the answer would come” (personal conversation, 2001).  It would be interesting to pursue, of course in another paper, how the theme of the Guru or the guide links these two great writers and contemporaries. 

But I brought in Raja Rao primarily to suggest a contrast.  Unlike Rao who, going by his best-known texts such as The Serpent and the Rope and The Chessmaster and His Moves, seems to be an almost eager Guru, Narayan, as he titled his essay based on his stint at Kansas, was a most “Reluctant Guru.” The essay in question was published in slim collection of the same title in 1974 by Orient Paperbacks, Delhi.   It is also available in A Writer’s Nightmare:  Selected Essays 1958-1988 (from which badly edited edition my quotations are drawn).  The essay does not offer any clue as where exactly Narayan’s experiences took place, but in a delightful reminiscence by Warren French (see Works Cited), who was then the Head of Department of English at University of Missouri-Kansas City, fixes not just the time and the location, but also some of the characters who feature in Narayan’s essay. 

What “The Reluctant Guru” goes on to recount is Narayan’s constant resistance to the role that seemed to be foisted on him, the role of an authentic exponent of the mystic East, a Guru or a sage--a role that he was most uncomfortable with, but which he couldn’t entirely shake off.  Going by the flimsy evidence of texts like The English Teacher and The Guide, his audience often “demanded” doses of Indian spirituality and mysticism from him.  Narayan confesses, “I felt myself in the same situation as Raju, the hero of my Guide who was mistaken for a saint and began to wonder at some point himself if a sudden effulgence had begun to show on his face” (105).  Narayan is even telephoned by enthusiasts in the wee hours of the morning because it is assumed that he would up and meditating at 4:00 a.m.; he is asked if he can communicate with spirits; he is asked to predict the future; he is even importuned to help an earnest diasporic devotee attain a vision of the Goddess Kali!

If all this sounds somewhat bizarre, we have to remember that it happened in 1969, at the height of the counter-culture movement.  As Javaid Qazi, a student at the University of Missouri who features in Narayan’s essay, points out:  “In those days there was a terrible Guru-need across the land and anyone who could mouth a few appropriate phrases could take up the role easily” (French190).  But in response to such mistaken adulation, this is what Narayan had to say to his class:  “Your search is for a ‘guru’ who can promise you instant mystic elation; whereas your counterpart looks for a Foundation Grant.  The young person in my country would sooner learn how to organize a business or manufacture an atom bomb or an automobile than how to stand on one’s head” (104).  We cannot be in any doubt as what Narayan meant:  the “realties” of India were quite different from the images that the Americans had of them. Narayan himself was also quite unlike what the other around him expected, rather demanded, him to be. Quite similarly, perhaps, Raju’s inner state was quite different from what Velan and other projected onto him.  (If we take this line of thought one step farther, the present essay itself can no more deliver the “true and authentic” meaning of The Guide though that is what may be, willy-nilly, expected of it.)

To move from Narayan’s essay to The Guide, the title “Reluctant Guru” is also well-suited to its protagonist, Raju, who like Narayan, is a most reluctant Guru.  In fact, this reluctance was noticed by some of the book’s earliest readers.  Donald Barr’s review in the New York Times of March 23, 1958 was actually entitled “Fortunes of a Reluctant Holy Man” (Pontes 93).  It is interesting to notice that the first Indian reissue of the novel later that year by Narayan’s own house, Indian Thought Publications, gave the novel the subtitle:  “A Novel of a Reluctant Holy Man.”  That is why, it would seem, Narayan chose the far more unassuming and even ambiguous word “guide” instead of Guru.  Raju has been called a guide, not a Guru, because Narayan wishes to underscore, even problematize, the very difficulties of such a traditional appellation and function.  Indeed it would almost seem that Narayan wishes to tone down “Guru,” which etymologically conveys the idea of heavy, to something lighter, or Laghu in calling Raju a guide.  But the crucial question is whether the slighter, lighter, or more ironic title of guide instead of Guru makes a real difference in the end?


The Sacred (and the Profane) in Narayan

Is Raju a real saint or is he a fake?  This question, in one form or another, hinging as it does on the interpretation of Raju’s pilgrim’s progress, has exercised most readers of the novel ever since its publication.  For example in “The Ambiguous Man,” a most appropriately titled review that appeared in Commonweal magazine a few weeks after the novel’s publication, Sally Appleton observes:

The author must decide whether or not holiness will work….  the author abandons the reader to choose arbitrarily whether or not, as Raju sinks into the muddy river bed, he is dying, whether or not, as the water rises to Raju’s knees, it rises because “it’s raining in the hills” or because Raju himself is sagging into it.                                                             (Pontes 92)

It is not surprising that critics of the novel are divided on this question.  C. D. Narasimhaiah, for instance, considers Raju a transformed man in the end, someone who has attained authentic sainthood:  “with all his limitations Raju’s is a rich and complex life—achieving integration at last” (186).  In contrast, G. S. Balarama Gupta believes that Raju is a “selfish swindler, an adroit actor, and a perfidious megalomaniac” (135).  Even the present reading of the novel cannot but confront this ambiguity in the novel so as to take sides on this issue.  The question is not so much whether Raju is a willing saint or not:  like all of us, everyone within the novel notices Raju’s reluctance, even his unfitness for Gurudom.  But does that really change who or what he ends up becoming?  So what we have here is a real problem, one that leads us to crux of Narayan’s artistry and to his relationship to Indian modernity.  Because if Raju is a fake, Narayan is putting into doubt not just an individual but the institution of the Guru itself.

Such a view is supported by the fact that the ambiguity in Narayan’s portrayal of Raju extends to most of the other sanayasis, sadhus, holy, men, or even priests found in his novels.  In his study of such characters, Ganeswar Mishra says:

Unlike Mulk Raj Anand who introduces the holy man in several of his novels as belonging to the class of oppressors, Narayan shows him as an ordinary member of society, as noble or fraudulent as the rest of it.  Mostly, Narayan depicts the holy man in domestic and social situations, both as wise and foolish, comic and pathetic.     (169)

Chandran, the eponymous hero of The Bachelor of Arts, Narayan’s second novel, himself turns into something of a wandering ascetic.  It is ironic that earlier in the novel, Chandran and his father have caught another holy man stealing flowers from their garden early one morning.  While Chandran is quite “cynical” about the claims of the thief to any form of holiness, Chandran’s mother cries out, ‘“Is he a sanyasi? … Ah, leave him alone. Let him go.’  She was seized with fear now.  The curse of a holy man might fall on the family.  ‘You can go, sir,” she said respectfully’” (42-43).  For Mishra this situation illustrates a certain split the world of Malgudi:

The encounter between the holy man and the semi-Westernized family of the New Extension of Malgudi is in a way an encounter between ancient and modern India. The modern has reverence for the ancient, the ancient cannot ignore the modern, but they hardly understand each other.    …  The law protecting private property, and the holy man with his belief in his right of access to others’ houses and gardens, exist side by side in Malgudi, an epitome of modern India, without coming into confrontation.


Actually, the scene that Mishra has tried to analyze in Bachelor of Arts does involve a confrontation, but one that proves to be inconclusive.  That is why I believe that what happens in The Guide is far more convincing, thought not devoid of the rich ambiguities and complexities of a spiritual life in contemporary times.  Mishra also fails to take note of the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, who though he appears only briefly in Waiting for the Mahatma, seems to order an entire world-view, besides controlling the lives of the protagonists.  The question of the holy man in Narayan’s fiction, despite all its ambiguities, does have an answer; it cannot be dodged by taking recourse in some sort of ambivalence or indeterminacy.


The Guide as Guru

From all the evidence presented so far, we should be prepared, as I suggested earlier, to see The Guide as a novel about the rather serious issue of what constitutes a Guru—this, at any rate, is one of its major themes.  Furthermore, the novel not only asks if Raju is a real Guru but also if Gurus are for real.  At an even more complex level, the novel engages with the whole question of Indian modernity.  Did modernity in India really refashion Indian society as it did in Europe?  Or is it something that exists, as Mishra suggests, side by side with tradition, but unable to comprehend it?  Or is it a superficial facade, a veneer that hides but not erases the force of tradition?  Our interpretation of Raju’s journey has bearings on such questions. 

We can see at once that it is not easy definitively to answer these questions.  That is not only because the questions themselves are overlapping but because the possible answers need not be mutually exclusive.  There can be, within the same text, more than one way of resolving them.  In addition, in a novel such as The Guide, the narrative technique adds to the ambiguity of the issue.  I think it is significant that at the end of Raju’s narration, we are back in the third person narrative.  We have been placed in Velan’s shoes, so to speak, having to decide for ourselves whether we still wish to regard Raju as a holy man or not, knowing so clearly that he is an imposter. As the text tell us: 

Raju had mentioned without a single omission every detail from his birth to his emergence from the gates of the prison.  He imagined that Velan would rise with disgust and swear, ‘And we took you for such a noble soul all along!  If one like you does penance, it’ll drive off even the little rain that we may hope for.  Begone, you – before we feel tempted to throw you out.  You have fooled us.’ Raju waited for these words as if for words of reprieve.  He looked on Velan’s silence with anxiety and suspense, as if he waited on a judge’s verdict again, a second time. (208)

What is remarkable about this passage is that not just Raju—or Velan—but we the readers are also on trial.  As we judge Raju, so shall we be judged; our judgments will reveal what our own values and intellectual make-up are like.  Can we believe that a human being even more susceptible to temptation and selfish than some of us can be transformed into an authentic holy man?  Can we—do we—believe in holy men (and women) at all?  Or are we hardened skeptics who have no use for such categories?

To go back to the novel, Velan’s verdict, despite his still and stern demeanor, is clear:  “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” (208).  Now, Raju is really worried, “Every respectful word that this man employed pierced Raju like a shaft.  ‘He will not leave me alone,’ Raju thought with resignation.  ‘This man will finish me before I know where I am’” (209).  Mary Beatina Rayen makes the interesting observation that at this point in the novel, there is a role reversal:  “While the villagers believe that Raju is their guru, Raju is their disciple.  Their faith and piety impel Raju to transform himself” (71).  Indeed, the novel clearly tells us:

For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort, for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love:  for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested.    (213).

What Narayan shows, therefore, is that the process of guidance and transformation that the institution of the Guru implies is neither unidirectional nor simplistic.  The Guru is neither a person nor a unilateral event of giving; instead, it is a process that is mutually transforming and alchemical.  In this case, the “real” Guru is the faith that the villagers bestow on Raju:  Raju is thus the villagers’ disciple until he is obliged to convert himself into their Guru by the intensity of their demand of the “Guru function” from him. 

Yet, the question of Raju’s transformation is left unresolved till the end of the novel.  As the very last paragraph of the novel states:

He went down to the steps of the river, halting for breath on each step, and finally reached his basin of water.  He stepped into it, shut his eyes and turned towards the mountain, his lips muttering the prayer.  Velan and another held him each by an arm.  The morning sun was out by now; a great shaft of light illuminated the surroundings. It was difficult to hold Raju to his feet, as he had a tendency to flop down.  They held him as if he were a baby.  Raju opened his eyes, looked about, and said, “Velan, it’s raining in the hills.  I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs--” and with that he sagged down.                                               (221)

Again, we are invited into what seems a terrain of endless indeterminacy:  does it really rain?  Does Raju survive to see the miracle?  Or does he die with the delusion that his sacrifice has paid off?  Again, while the novel offers us no conclusive evidence to answer these questions satisfactorily, it definitely compels us to examine our own wishes and hopes for Raju and the villagers. Are we people of faith, those who believe that the sacrifice of a well-intentioned individual can solve social problems, even change the course of natural events?  Or are we modern, “scientific” people who refuse to yield to such superstitions?  To frame the choices offered by the novel in an even more complex manner, do we want to believe even though we might be unable to? 

While the ending is uncertain, it need not over-determine how we read the entire novel.  Whether it rains or not is only one of the things which will help us decide if Raju is a genuine Guru.  As we saw from an earlier quotation, Raju’s effort in keeping the fast has at last become wholehearted and pure-intentioned.  Even if Raju is someone on whom Gurudom has been thrust, he does seem to grow in stature to fit its mantle.  This is the story of an eager, even enthusiastic guide turned into a reluctant Guru.  Some are born Gurus; some acquire Guruhood; and some, indeed, have Gurudom thrust upon them.  But the question still remains if the last are genuine—are they really Gurus or are they fakes?


From Tradition vs. Modernity to Tradition in Modernity

I would like to bring in two other narratives here that have bearing on this central question. Both are symmetrically opposite; one represents tradition, the other modernity.  The first is taken from Sri Ramakrishna, while the second is from Satyajit Ray.  Both of these are great figures in the recent history of Bengal, nay of India.  I have deliberately chosen them to represent two different, if contrasting, facets of modern India.  Sri Ramakrishna’s story is rather simple, though it too is about role-playing.  A fisherman enters the orchard of a rich man in order to steal some fish from the latter’s pond.  Unfortunately, he is spotted.  “Thief, thief,” the guards cry, as he runs deep into the orchard for cover.  Lighted torches, they chase after him.  In the meanwhile, desperate to escape detection, the fisherman smears himself with ashes and sits under a tree, pretending to be a holy man. After a lot of searching, the guards come upon a man sitting under a large tree, supposedly in deep meditation.  Instead of disturbing him, they rush back to the house to inform the landlord.  The landlord goes to pay his respects to the holy man, carrying all manner of fruits and delicacies with him. Soon the news spreads in the neighborhood.  Many flock to him for the holy man’s darshan, offering not just flowers and fruit, but silver and copper coins. Later, when left to himself, the thief has a change of heart.  “I am not a genuine holy man and still people show such devotion to me.  What would they do if I was really a holy man?” He reasons that if the appearance of being holy is so efficacious, bringing so many bounties, how much more so would the real thing be.  He renounces the world and indeed becomes a holy man.  (This is my free rendering of the story in Tales and Parables of Sri Ramakrishna, 144-147.  Incidentally, Sri Ramakrishna also has another story of a thief who ends up being a holy man after he starts out pretending to be one.  In this case, an aspiring suitor acts like a sadhu in order to marry the King’s daughter.  But when he sees how respected he is as a sadhu, he gives up all plans of marrying the princess and actually renounces the world!)

The second story is from Satyajit Ray’s Devi, a film that is not among his best known works, but is very powerful take on the tradition-modernity dialectic.  Ray, we must remember, was a Brahmo, born into a reformist, even breakaway sect of Hinduism. In the film the crisis in the plot once again involves role-playing, but the end is totally contrary, even catastrophic.  The protagonist, who has been apotheosized from an amorous newly wedded wife and obedient daughter-in-law into a living Goddess, actually goes mad, unable to bear the traumatic responsibilities of her role.  She is unable to cure her own favorite nephew, who dies even as she watches helplessly.  Yet this film, made so overtly in favor of modernity and so obviously crafted to point out the dangers and fallacies of tradition, is much more ambivalent.  The argument in favor of the Devi is much more forceful and persuasive cinematically even if ideologically the film seems to be loaded otherwise.  The scenes of the father-in-law’s dream and of the daughter-in-law as the living Goddess are etched deeper in our memories, as is the depiction of the first miracles and the long lines of thronging devotees after the “miracle.”

Clearly, both these stories are different from several others in which the Guru is clearly a fake, whether in a recent novel such as Salman Rushdie’s Fury or the diasporic film, The Guru.  These latter instances suggest that a thoroughly the modern mind can only parody the institution of the Guru, just as a thoroughly traditional can only compose hagiographies.  The complexity of India’s trajectory into the modern cannot be contained in either of these diametrically opposed view points.  Instead, those narratives that express and explore the ambivalent terrain of the modern, shot through and through as it is with contradictions and confusions, are better equipped to handle such issues.  And The Guide is one such text.

Going back to it, I think it is obvious that there are clearly at least two sides to the argument over Raju’s Gurudom. There is enough evidence in the text to show that Raju’s claims are weak.  At the same time there is also sufficient proof that his transformation may be real.   It seems to me that Narayan, despite being so aware of the dangers of shamming such a serious thing as a being a Guru, actually comes out in favor of the institution in the end.  He does so, however, in the most unusual, even unwilling way, almost as if he is forced to accept such an outcome.  He is unable to show the villagers rejecting Raju or Velan abusing and unmasking him.  He is unable to turn his book into a propaganda tract against superstitious villagers and unscrupulous charlatans.  The Guide is far from being an expose of phony Godmen exploiting the gullible masses.  Narayan cannot make a pitch in favor of mechanization or development as the cure of all ills, including drought. 

Instead, very hesitatingly, very tentatively, richly embroidering his text with irony and ambiguity, Narayan actually seems to ask, “Who is to say that these things cannot be true?  Who is to say that a man like Raju cannot become a Guru?”  Narayan does not endorse tradition in a loud or sententious manner, but because he does not reject it outright or condemn it out of hand, he creates a special space for it.  Tradition thus reaffirms itself in an unusual, unexpected way, quietly, not stridently. In the struggle between tradition and modernity, tradition wins, not in a triumphalist way, but in an unassertive, almost inept way—in spite of itself, very reluctantly as it were.  This is because both Raju’s penance and his ultimate sacrifice are real no matter how painfully flawed his motives may have been earlier or how ineffectual their outcome.  There is ample textual evidence to suggest that a gradual but sure inner alteration in Raju’s inner being does take place.  In other words, the irony strengthens the “Hindu” world view, not weakens it as it might appear at the start.


Protagonist Narayan

In his own life, Narayan resembled some of his protagonists in that he tried to rebel against the traditional order but was, ultimately and in the most unexpectedly painful manner, forced to acknowledge it.  This is best illustrated in the story of his marriage to Rajam which is accurately fictionalized in The English Teacher.  The actual events are well documented in Susan and N. Ram’s extraordinary biography of Narayan, of which only the first part has been published.  In Chapter 16, “A Girl from Heaven,” the Rams clearly state that in the 1930s the norm was for boys and girls to be segregated; young men hardly spoke to any other women than their sisters or relatives, “but Narayan was not a person to be ruled by tradition” (120).  He fell in love, of his own accord, with a stranger he saw on the street.  In My Days, Narayan himself recalls the momentous event:  “One day, I saw a girl drawing water from the street tap and immediately fell in love with her” (106).  The girl in question was then just fifteen years of age.  Narayan not only courted her but pursued his wish to marry her by “arranging” his own marriage; he also superceded his elder brother in marrying ahead of the latter, a practice frowned upon in traditional families.  What is more, he defied the astrologer who predicted that Narayan’s and Rajam’s horoscopes were incompatible. Incidentally, this theme of the mismatched horoscopes recurs throughout Narayan’s oeuvre (Ram and Ram  123-4)  “Mars in the seventh house” in the latter’s horoscope indicates her early death if the marriage went through.  Narayan persists, having his way.  He and Rajam are married on 1st July 1934.  Five years later, on 6th June 1939, Rajam is dead.  What followed is severe depression from which Narayan recovers only after he has a series of séances in which through a medium, he believes he is able to communicate with his dead wife.  The whole experience matches what he later recounts in The English Teacher.

The therapeutic impact of the séances can hardly be doubted; Narayan attests to their values not only in The English Teacher but also in My Days (Ram and Ram 309).  Narayan kept a meticulous record of his psychic experiences.  These have been convincingly documented and analyzed by the Rams.  They conclude that Narayan, always a devout Hindu who believed in life after death and in reincarnation, now perceived the existence of multiple planes of consciousness, “the undying nature of one’s ‘personality,’ and also the possibility of inter-plane communication” (ibid 310).  This belief may be summed up in Narayan’s own words taken from his “Psychic Journal”:  “The individual life is a thing which exists in several layers.  One’s existence is really in several planes, all different and yet with the common link of the mind” (ibid 364).  Narayan carried on his psychic experiments devotedly for more than five years after Rajam’s death.  He never remarried, remaining convinced of the reality of his relationship with his wife.  All this goes to show that Narayan was not only had a steady spiritual faith and practice, but in his own unostentatious way, he believed in those traditions that others may have wished to discard in the name of modernity.  Indeed, The English Teacher is a key text in that it shows both sides of Narayan’s art. As most critics have noticed, it falls into two parts.  The first has the lightness of touch, the irony and the comedy that are his forte, but the second is deeply, even incredibly spiritualist.  No wonder, many Western readers and critics, and probably some Indians too, have special problems with the second half of the novel.  

Conclusion:  Narayan’s Nonassertive Traditionalism

I have been trying to argue that Narayan’s art, if examined closely, suggests that his works ultimately uphold the traditional Hindu world-view.  Such a view sees the cosmos as united, interdependent, and informed by a self-regulating moral order.  The individual, subject to evolution beyond death, grows in knowledge and freedom through the performance of his purusharthas or the cardinal aims of life.  It is such values that inform Narayan’s world.  His novels are dominated, in the final analysis, by notions of karma and dharma.  If so, then what of his world famous irony and humor, one might ask?  Of course, they are very much present and equally real, but what has not been clearly understood is their function.  I believe they help define the kind and the nature of the tradition that Narayan espouses.  His irony and humor show that it is a not so much a triumphalist and stentorian Hinduism as a quiet, modest and utterly non-assertive way of life that best represents what he believes the real traditions of India are.  By the same token, Narayan’s critique and undermining of modernity are equally gentle and subtle.  The claims and promises of the modern are neither rejected out of hand nor overtly condemned, instead they are shown to be ineffectual and mistaken time and again. 

              If Narayan is sometimes mistaken for what he is not, it is also refreshing that once in a while he is not believed to be the person he really is.  This is the obverse of the problem of the reluctant Guru.  In another incident during that same stint at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in Spring1969, a “slightly drunken stranger” looks Narayan up and down rather skeptically before asking:

“You are the novelist?  No you can’t be.”

              “Why not?” I asked.

              “All the time I had pictured in my mind the author of my favourite novels such as the Guide etc., so differently.  Now you look like this.  You must be an imposter.”

“Absolutely right,” I cried.  “You are the first sane person I have come across.  So difficult to convince others that I’m not myself.”


Narayan may have been a most reluctant Guru, but like Raju, a Guru he still is if by Guru we mean someone who points the way to Reality.  Narayan is able to perform this function with a self-deprecating ease which is at first rather deceptive.  But after a careful re-reading of his major works we should know better.


Note:  I would like to thank the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin for a Mellon award that enabled most of the research on this paper.  An earlier version was presented as the first Harendralal Basak Memorial Lecture at Presidency College, Kolkata, on 22nd February 2003.



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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape