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The Wounds of India

I

India will go on,” the novelist R. K. Narayan had said in 1961. And for the peasants of Bihar or Bundi with their knowledge of karma, India was going on; the Hindu equilibrium still held. They were as removed from the Emergency in 1975 as Narayan himself had been from the political uncertainties of 1961.

Narayan was then in his fifties. Living in India, writing in English for publication abroad, operating as a novelist in a culture where the idea of the novel was new and as yet little understood, Narayan had had to wait long for recognition. He was middle-aged, the best of his work done, his fictional world established, before he had traveled out of India; and, when I met him in London, this late travel seemed to have brought him no shocks.

He had just been visiting the United States, and was returning happily to India. He said he needed to go again for his afternoon walks, to be among his characters, the people he wrote about. In literature itself he was not so interested. Like his hero in Mr. Sampath,1 he was letting his thoughts turn to the Infinite; in the midst of activity, and success, he was preparing, in the Hindu way, for withdrawal. He said he had begun to read sacred Sanskrit texts with the help of a pundit. He seemed a man at peace with his world, at peace with India, and the fictional world he had abstracted from the country.

But it was in the 1930s, before Independence, that Narayan had established his fictional world: the small and pacific South Indian town, little men, little schemes, the comedy of restricted lives and high philosophical speculation, real power surrendered long ago to the British rulers, who were far away and only dimly perceived. With Independence, however, the world had grown larger around Narayan. Power had come closer; men were required to be bigger. To Narayan himself had come recognition and foreign travel; and though in the red land around Bangalore, one of the cities of Narayan’s childhood, peasant life continued as it had always done, Bangalore was becoming a center of Indian industry and science.

Narayan’s small town could not easily be insulated from the larger, restless world, could no longer be seen as finished and complete, with the well-defined boundaries necessary for his kind of humor. And very soon, after the certitude of 1961, doubt seemed to have come to Narayan. As early as 1967 there appeared a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium—so confidently maintained in Mr. Sampath—collapses into something like despair.

The novel is The Vendor of Sweets.2 It is not one of Narayan’s better books; but Narayan is such a natural writer, so true to his experience and emotions, that this novel is as much a key to the moral bewilderment of today as Mr. Sampath was to the sterility of Hindu attitudes at the time of Independence. The Vendor of Sweets, like Mr. Sampath, is also a fable, and it broadly repeats the theme of the earlier book: there is a venture into the world of doing, and at the end there is a withdrawal.

The sweet-vendor is Jagan, a rich man, conscientiously adding every day to his money-hoard at home (the “black money” of India), but a Gandhian, a faddist, a man obsessed with the idea of purity. He is fair with his customers; he cheats only the government of the country for whose sake, in the British days, he endured police beatings and imprisonment in an insanitary jail. “If Gandhi had said somewhere, ‘Pay your sales tax uncomplainingly,’ he would have followed his advice, but Gandhi had made no reference to the sales tax anywhere to Jagan’s knowledge.”

(Was Jagan then a freedom fighter, concerned about the political humiliation of his country, or was he only the disciple of a holy man, in the old Hindu tradition? Hindu morality, centered on the self and self-realization, has its own social corruptions: how many Jagans exist who, conscious only of their Gandhian piety, their personal virtue, have mocked and undermined the Independence for which they say they have worked! But Narayan doesn’t raise the point. He only makes the joke about Gandhi and the sales tax; he is on Jagan’s side.)

Jagan is a widower with one child, a son, on whom he dotes. The boy, though, is sullen and talks little to his father. He announces one day that he is finished with school: he wants to be a writer. And later Jagan discovers that the boy, using money from the money-hoard at home, has booked his passage to the United States, to go to a school of creative writing. Jagan digests his disappointment; the boy goes away. Very quickly, the time passes; and then, almost without warning, the boy returns. He is not alone. He is with a woman, apparently his wife, who, startlingly in that South Indian setting, is half Korean, half American. Between them they have plans, and they need Jagan’s money. They have come to India to set up, with American collaboration, a factory which will manufacture story-writing machines. It is an American invention; and, like Americans, the couple bustle about the ramshackle little town.

The satire is too gross, the new-comers too outlandish. Comedy fails, and the writer’s fictional world collapses, for the reasons that Jagan’s world collapses: they have both been damaged by the intrusion of alien elements. Shock follows shock. The boy fusses about the absence of a telephone, rides about on a scooter (Jagan is content to walk), speaks contemptuously of the sweet-shop. It also turns out that he is not married to the woman who, not being Indian, is already casteless, and therefore without a place in Jagan’s world. All the rules have been broken; Jagan is lost. Without a vision of the future now, he can only contemplate the sweet rituals of the recent, ordered past: his childhood, his marriage, a pilgrimage to a temple.

He feels that his home has been “dirtied” and at last he recoils. He barricades himself against the couple; he seeks, with a “peculiar excitement,” to purify himself. He begins to sell his sweets cheaply to the poor and offends the other shopkeepers; he assembles his staff and reads the Gita aloud to them. Finally he decides to withdraw to a wilderness away from the town, near a ruined shrine. There, divested of possessions, he will watch a master-carver, who is like a “man from the previous millennium,” complete an old, unfinished image of a five-faced goddess, “the light that illumines the sun itself.”

Before he can withdraw, the Korean girl leaves. Jagan’s son, getting nowhere with his business plans, has decided to send her away. And then the son himself is arrested for having half a bottle of liquor in his car. Under the prohibition laws he faces two years in jail. For Jagan this is the final blow, not so much the threat of the jail sentence as the news that his son drinks. He weeps; he will of course pay for lawyers for his son; but he is more determined than ever to give up the world. “A little prison life won’t harm anyone,” he says. “Who are we to get him out or put him in?” And he goes to take the bus out of the town, on the way to his jungle retreat.

So, with high virtue, Jagan abandons his son, just as Srinivas, the hero of Mr. Sampath, “elated” by his vision of eternity, abandoned his friend. But it was only from the world of commerce and “nonsense” that Srinivas withdrew. Jagan’s flight is not like Srinivas’s withdrawal, and is the opposite of the calm renunciation which Hinduism prescribes, when the householder, his duties done, makes way for his successors and turns to a life of meditation. That act of renunciation implies an ordered, continuing world. Chaos has come to Jagan’s world; his act is an act of despair; he runs away in tears.

The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader…. But it always had its rebirth and growth.” This was how, in pre-Independence India, the hero of Mr. Sampath saw the course of Indian history: rebirth and growth as a cleansing, a recurrent Indian miracle, brought about only by the exercise of self-knowledge. But in independent India rebirth and growth have other meanings and call for another kind of effort. The modern world, after all, cannot be caricatured or conjured away; a pastoral past cannot be re-established.

Bangalore, the capital city of the state which contains Narayan’s fictional small town, is also India’s scientific capital. In 1961—when Narayan told me that India would go on—there were perhaps two scientists of distinction at work in Bangalore. Today, I was told, there are twenty. It was at Bangalore that the first Indian space satellite (named, typically, after a medieval Hindu astronomer) was built: more impressive as a scientific achievement, it is said, than the Indian atomic bomb, more revealing of the technological capacity that India has developed since Independence. The dedicated chief secretary of the state, a man of simple origins, sees himself and his family as the products both of Independence and India’s industrial revolution. He is committed to that revolution; the changes it is bringing about, he says, are “elemental.”

From Bangalore there runs a 500-mile highway through the Deccan plateau to Poona, the industrial town on the edge of the plateau east of Bombay. There are almost no cars on this highway, many bullock carts, many lorries. The lorries are hideously over-loaded; their tires are worn smooth; and the lorries often overturn. But, through all the old pain of rural India, the industrial traffic is constant. Change has indeed come to people like Jagan; their world cannot be made small again.

But what to the administrator is elemental change, and urgently necessary, can also be seen as violation. Narayan is an instinctive, unstudied writer: the lack of balance in The Vendor of Sweets, the loss of irony, and the very crudity of the satire on “modern” civilization speak of the depth of the violation Narayan feels that that civilization—in its Indian aspect—has brought to someone like Jagan. And how fragile that Hindu world turns out to be, after all! From the outside so stable and unyielding, yet liable to crumble at the first assault from within: the self-assertion of a son, to whom has come a knowledge of the larger world, another, non-Hindu idea of human possibility, and is no longer content to be part of the flow, part of the Hindu continuity.

Some of the gestures of rebellion might seem trivial—driving in motorcars, meat-eating, drinking—but to Jagan they are all momentous. Where ritual regulates the will, and so much of behavior is ceremonial, all gestures are important. One gesture of rebellion, as Narayan seems to suggest, brings others in its train, and very quickly they add up to a rejection of the piety and reverences that held the society together, a rejection of karma. Such a fragile world, where rebellion is so easy, a mere abandoning of ritual! It is as though the Hindu equilibrium required a world as small and as restricting as that of Narayan’s early novels, where men could never grow, talked much and did little, and were fundamentally obedient, content to be ruled in all things by others.

  1. 1

    Published in the US as The Printer of Malgudi (Michigan State University Press).

  2. 2

    Viking Press, 1967.

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