Thursday, November 15, 2012
Book Summary- The Bachelor of Arts by R.K. Narayan
The Bachelor of Arts
By R.K. Narayan
31st Reprint 2012
Indian Thought Publications, Chennai
Introduction by Graham Greene
166 pp, Rs. 100/-
I have now taken it upon myself to read (or re-read) the entire collection of R.K. Narayan. My first view of the book was when I was a child (it was my grandfather’s copy of the 1st Indian edition, if my memory is still good). I wanted to be a Bachelor of Arts before reading it. Somehow, this book missed my eyes after I completed my B.A. (not that I have a great memory of the ones I read before), so I decided to start with this one while revisiting R.K.
Graham Greene, in his introduction to the book, pointed out that without R.K., he “could never have known what it is to be an Indian”.
Though I grew up on the staple diet of Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I realised that I could relate to novels with Indian characters better. Thereafter, my reading habit was limited, so was my vocabulary. I gradually gave up my reading habit and concentrated only on my studies (that’s a different story altogether; whether it was a worthwhile choice is debatable). I was excited when the new generation of writers of Indian fiction dished out their fare (at affordable prices), but then revisiting R.K. is a pleasure in itself.
The story of one H.V. Chandran, the son of a retired District Judge (a fact that is not known to the reader until very late in the novel), is traced from the final year of his B.A. class till the time he finds a job and gets married. And, it has to be read to be enjoyed. Let me sum up the book in the best way I can (but those who’ve already read it need not be surprised to find my summary bland at its blandest!).
The book opens with Chandran, a final B.A. student, being forced to be the Prime Mover of a debate on whether historians should be slaughtered first. He is hesitant, not because he loves the subject, but because he fears his professor may ‘eat’ him up! But while making notes for the debate, he realises that he concentrates best while walking with a bent head (these are the nuances which make the book unputdownable). The short anecdotes which capture the essence of college life, like the travails of organising meetings and listening to ‘self-proclaimed intellectual’ professors, hanging out with friends long after college got over or watching movies despite parental dislike or even lack of concern for parental love and the study schedule which is followed in breach, are brought out in a way that most readers can connect to some or more of them. How many of us have not come across speakers who talk for hours on end, even while proclaiming that they will speak only for a few seconds! Have we not experienced the loss after tending to our garden with care, of lovely flowers, which we desired to decorate the Gods with?
The capture of the flower thief (a sanyasi, so let to go free) is not just an interesting stand-alone anecdote. It is linked to the future (I’ll come back to it in a while). Chandran completes his B.A. but dislikes career suggestions or discussions, so decides to go abroad, if only to silence such unwanted suggestions. On one of his long walks on the river banks, he comes across a girl who plays with her younger sister on the sand. It can’t be said that he sees her, because he always observes her from a distance. Infatuation or love (whatever it is) hits him hard and Chandran, with a lot of hard work, finds out the girl’s residence and her social background. He is relieved to note that she belongs to the same sub-caste as he – it is interesting to note that despite his smoking habit, Chandran is by an large a conformist to the extant societal norms (he never exceeded the limits of decency while observing her) – and hopes it is a clincher.
Destiny had already lined up a number of hair-pin bends whereby the reader realises that the dead end of the road is only a bend! At first, the girl’s family is of a lower status than his, then the girl’s family does not first approach them for his hand (which is successfully circumvented by making a matchmaker approach the girl’s family, and suggesting the alliance on his own volition), and the girl’s father takes his own time to send the horoscope (attributed to ‘inauspicious dates’). These bends finally seem to be leading to a point of no return – because the horoscopes don’t match. Last ditch efforts made by Chandran’s parents at his behest, like bringing the respective astrologers together, to try and arrive at a compromise prove futile and the end of the road is finally reached, in respect of Chandran’s love. What interests the reader are the contrasting remarks made by Chandran’s mother when they are interested in the alliance (the thrust on character and integrity) and when the girl’s astrologer finds faults with Chandran’s horoscope (‘this is what we get for trying to pick up something from the gutter’ (emphasis added)) as well as her optimism about the success of the alliance.
As a means to escape sorrow, Chandran goes to Madras, but checks into a hotel rather than go to his uncle’s place. At the hotel, he befriends a hedonistic Kailas, because of whom he visits a bar and a house of ill-repute. Conscience pricks him and he quickly makes his exit from Kailas’ life and friendship, as quickly as he becomes his friend. To spite his parents, he becomes a Sanyasi and gets some preference in life (with regard to getting something to eat despite doing nothing). Does the reader remember the flower thief, who was let off only because he was a ‘holy man’? Chandran’s journey continues, not with reference to the truth or something abstract but in respect of number of places visited. This is quite a coming of some age of a person scared of moving out of his comfort zone (the reader may please note his reluctance to go to Madras because of its hot & hotter seasons!). Finally, enlightenment dawns on him and he suddenly decides to give up the ‘conceit’ of fooling people, of posing as a holy man. This he does as suddenly as he decides to be a Sanyasi.
On his return, Chandran finds out how much his parents cared for him – in the cleanliness of his room in stark contrast to the neglect of the garden (their ‘prized possession’ once upon a time). He is able to reconnect only with one of his friends. Even as arrangements are underway (again) to send him to England for higher studies (one thing that I failed to comprehend is how Chandran will do his doctorate, after B.A., and without an M.A. degree), Chandran decides to seek the agency for a newspaper in which a friend of his, Mohan, is a reporter as well as contributor. His mother reconciles to his cancelling his trip like the way she warmed up to and criticised the girl’s family when Chandran fell in love. Admirable support this!
In contradiction to his previous visit to Madras, this time he goes to his uncle’s place, (where he was originally scheduled to stay on his previous visit as well). He returns home successfully, after his uncle ensures the same, by throwing his weight around.
Chandran’s life cruises along happily, with the sole purpose of enlarging his business. At this stage, the reader is captivated by the way Chandran seeks to enlarge his business, especially the four stages of approaching a client – Information, Illumination, Appeal & Force – and the four fold classification of humanity which read newspapers, directly or indirectly.
In the course of securing his clientele, Chandran revisits his own history – the college where he studied and realises that the enthusiastic students of today are nothing more than a ‘group photo’ in due course! He realises that time separates inseparable friends; he tries to reason it by thinking that there’s nothing like friendship (the reader has already learnt that friends were brought together by force of circumstances, and mistook, by the influence of illusion, that the relationship was friendship). He also notices a change in behaviour of one of the professors, while another continues to be the same.
One fine day, Chandran’s parents request him to consider the proposal from a lawyer for his daughter. The girl’s father is well-to-do, and is willing to give a handsome dowry; moreover, the girl is said to be fair. This part brings into focus the aspects which excite (or entice) the boy’s parents. Chandran’s answer is a firm ‘no’, but it is not so firm; it is shaken thoroughly when his friend, Mohan, gives him practical reasons to defect firmly – ‘some money and the benefits of a permanent help-mate’.
In the process of this defection of Chandran’s the reader gets to know that, in Chandran’s current opinion, there is no such thing as love , but one which is mistaken for the motive of ‘habitual decent behaviour’. Mohan, in a slightly different context, propounds the theory of ‘Callous Realism’, which is nothing but seeing the reality of things (some readers may understand it as crass materialism).
Needless to say, Chandran likes this girl, Susila, and gets married to her. But, she has to stay with her parents to complete her VI Form. And, despite his philosophy about love, he rushes to his wife’s home, when she doesn’t write to his for six continuous days (despite her promise to write every alternate day). The reader also gets to know of the first sight for marriage and the process by which the tradition Indian girl gives up her shyness – time and familiarity.
After reading this novel I wondered why I forgot about this novel, even decades after completing my B.A. I realised, as Chandran’s mother said, it was ‘all a matter of fate’!
* * * * * * * *