R. K. NARAYAN AND POLITICS

 

Prof. P. N. BHATT

 

            R. K. Narayan, the greatest novelist of stories of humour in Indo-Anglian literature, is not essentially interested in politics. His forte, like that of Jane Austen, is to laugh at odd behaviour and attitudes of common men. And yet, we have one novel of his in which he looks at the political movement of Indian struggle for independence through the glasses of a humourist.

 

            The theme of Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) is based on the romantic love of Sriram and Bharti, with the Gandhian movement and the struggle for freedom as its background. In spite of the background of political struggle, real importance is given to Sriram-Bharti love affair. Gandhiji is not given much importance, we do not learn much about Gandhiji. Gandhiji is shown as a sort of a background figure in the novel. The span of the novel covers six years before the freedom of our country and covers the history, making events like Salt Satyagraha, Noakhali, Quit India movement etc. All these events are subordinated and not given elaborate treatment. Narayan’s choice to introduce Gandhiji in the back-ground is a strange thing. Gandhiji is shown involved in very small incidents. Gandhi is talking to small children, villagers and Harijans, talking to them on very ordinary subjects of life. Gandhiji is shown to us through the eyes of Sriram’s grandmother. To her Gandhi is one who dangerously encourages the youth of India against the British Raj and creates political trouble. But it seems Narayan has considered the impact of Gandhiji sufficient to bring out the love and romance of Sriram and Bharti.

 

            The very opening of the novel discusses the family of Sriram. Sriram is the son of a soldier in the British army who died in Mesopotamia during the first world war. His mother died soon after and he was brought up by his grandmother who lived on a small pension that she received. They lived very economically and she also saved some thirty-eight thousand rupees in fund office for her grandson.

 

            When Sriram meets Bharti for the first time, he is highly impressed by her beauty and when she asked for contribution for poor people, Sriram wanted to ask her about her age, caste and horoscope. He was struck by the idea of marrying her, and without any hesitation he fumbles for contribution and gives her ten rupees. Sriram is cunningly simple. He had, “a wild hope that she would let him touch her hand.” When Gandhiji addressed the first public meeting in the evening on the Sarayu bank, he saw Bharti again on the dais. Gandhi’s first speech, “I see before me a vast army. Everyone of you has certain good points and certain defects, and you must all strive to discipline yourselves before we can hope to attain freedom for our country...But we have a system of our own to follow: that’s “Ram Dhun”; spinning on the Charkas and the practice of absolute Truth and Non-violence.”

 

            Sriram is attracted towards Gandhiji and later on joins the Gandhian movement, but it is more for the sake of Bharti. Sriram and Bharti meet at a Congress camp. Sriram is eager to establish friendship with Bharti and later on get married to her. Sriram’s intentions are very clear. Narayan gives us all the details about Sriram but does not reveal anything about Bharti. She is an orphan and has to say only a few words to Sriram, “I do whatever I am asked to do by the Sevak Sangh. Sometimes they ask me to go and teach people spinning and tell them about Mahatmaji’s ideas. Sometimes they send me to villages and poor quarters. I meet them and talk to them and do a few things. I attend to Mahatmaji’s needs.”

 

            Bharti is also polite to him. She arranges the interview for him. But she asks Sriram to put only facts and truth before Gandhiji. Next day Sriram goes to meet Gandhiji. When he meets Gandhiji, Gandhiji at once takes his case. Gandhiji says, “Bharti has just been mentioning you.” He spoke while his hands were busy turning a spinning wheel, drawing out a fine thread. A man sitting in a corner, with a pad resting on his knee, was writing. Mahatmaji himself, as always, was doing several things at the same time. While his hand was spinning, his eyes perused a letter held before him by another, and he found it possible too to put in a word of welcome to Sriram. Through the back door of the hut many others were coming in and passing out. For each one of them Mahatmaji had something good to say to him. Bharti is now sympathetic and considerate to him. “She seemed to be unaware of the feelings she was rousing in him.” And finally “Her braid laid its pleasant weight on his forearm. Her cheeks smelt of sandalwood soap. He kissed the pit of her throat. He revelled in the scent of sandalwood that her body exuded. “You are sweet-smelling” he said. “I will be your slave. I will do anything you ask me to do for you. I will buy you all the things in the world.” He behaved like an idiot. But soon She realises her own mistake and controls herself, “No, you will not touch me again,” she said. “...we shall marry” she said “the very minute Bapu agrees.”

 

            “With Bharti, Sriram is always a child, sometimes petulant, sometimes wilful, sometimes pathetic but always childish. Narayan very passionately describes the human emotions when two young lovers meet. They love each other but Bharti is not prepared to take any step without prior permission of Gandhiji even in her private life, she is fully and highly dedicated to Gandhian norms of life.

 

            Soon after this incident Bharti conveys the message to Sriram that his grandmother is seriously ill and is dying. Bharti knows this in jail but Sriram does not know or care to know even if he is only fifty miles away. He manages to go there and comes to know that his granny was dead. He goes into the old house and checks everything. He cries and sobs for a short time but very soon he talks to Kanni the shop-keeper that he feels hungry and finds nothing to eat. But soon Narayan gives a sharp humorous touch to the story, rather an unusual touch. When laid on funeral pyre the granny starts breathing and comes to life. Immediately the doctor is called. People are superstitious, they are not prepared to take the old lady back to the town as they fear some calamity and she is housed outside the town but Sriram is recognised, arrested and jailed, for a few years, and released in 1948.

 

            He meets Jagdish, a staunch terrorist. Narayan describes how revolutionaries used the two-way Japanese radio, and Sriram received messages from Subhas Chandra Bose. He describes the mass arrest of the people, transfer of power and some more episodes. Jagdish is unconvincing. India achieved freedom. Sriram and Bharti meet Gandhi again. We hear Gandhi permitting them to marry. Thus they were waiting for the Mahatma to get married. As a matter of fact Gandhiji intended to bless the ceremony the next day, but the dreadful thing happened.

 

            As Mahatma approached “the man stood before the Mahatma and brought his palms together in reverential salute. Mahatma Gandhi returned it. The man tried to step forward again. Mahatmaji’s granddaughter said, “Take your seat”, and tried to push him into line. The man nearly knocked the girl down, and took a revolver out of his pocket. As the Mahatma was about to step on the dais, the man took aim and fired. Two more shots rang out. The Mahatma fell on the dais. He was dead in a few seconds.” So far as Sriram is concerned “The impact of Gandhi transmitted through Bharti changes his whole life, bringing him out of the smug somnolence of pampered adolescence.” At the end of the novel, the great saint of the age is no more; he had fulfilled his duty. But “there is a sense of fulfilment in Sriram’s personal life.

 

            Sriram’s love for Bharti is very deep and true. In the beginning we may find that Sriram is careless, he has no aim in life, but when he comes in contact with Gandhiji through Bharti, he is completely changed; so much so that his fundamental aim of life centres round Bharti. It looks a bit strange that a fine, beautiful, young, intelligent, well-seasoned girl like Bharti falls in love with a simpleton like Sriram. From Gandhian way of life he moves towards terrorist movements and takes active part in the struggle for freedom. But he finally returns to Gandhi and Bharti. His love for Bharti is deep, and remains constant all through the pages of the novel. Again we see how Narayan uses the humorous angle. Sometimes Sriram feels all these things trivial. While picketting in the Kabir lane, he feels uneasy. He does not see anything wrong if the shop-keeper is selling the British biscuits or goods of Scandinavia, or of any other country. He is in despair and writes a letter to Gandhiji – “Revered Mahatmaji, I don’t know why we should bother about these folk. They don’t seem to deserve anything we may do for them. They sell and eat foreign biscuits. They are all frivolous-minded, always bothering too much about a young scamp who has climbed a tree. I don’t know if he has come down. I won’t care if he falls down, it’ll be a good riddance for all concerned. They will thank us for leaving them alone, rather than for telling them how to win Swaraj. They simply don’t care.”

 

            Soon he is tired of all these things, fighting, for nothing, wandering for nothing like a vagabond, and he feels that involving himself in such a movement is useless. In the jail he felt “he was losing his identity. He had lost his patriotic aim. He wondered what he had done to warrant anyone calling him a political-sufferer.” Sriram becomes very uneasy when Bharti is taken to jail. He becomes very desperate. Regardmg Bharti Dr. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar remarks “Bharti herself is a masterful young heroine, a Malgudi Portia rich only in her natural endowments, whereas Sriram can easily qualify for a Malgudi Bassanio. It is Bharti who makes a patriot and a man of Sriram, and in marriage he is certain to find in her the saviour strength that is women’s Shakti.” Waiting for the Mahatma is not like Waiting for Godot. Sriram waits for permission to marry Bharti. Godse waits for him, pistol in hand. A sub-continent waited in the confident hope that he will bring Swaraj for its millions. He did not fail any of them.”

 

            The entire political movement is surveyed from a slightly comic angle.

 

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