Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

R.K. Narayan : The Bachelor

O.K., now I'm totally hooked on Narayan, and may never read another author until I've gone through all 15 of his novels.

Just as with "Swami", he's put me right inside the head of a person of a certain age -- in this case, about 25 -- and of the same time, place, and caste. (South India, 1930's, Brahmin)

But despite how distant those circumstances are from my own, I completely identify with the turbulent, exciting mental world of a young adult, and with the kind of challenges the mind presents (so different from the life and death challenges faced by young people in revolutionary China)

What's especially remarkable, to me, is the endless tolerance and support young Chandran gets from his long suffering parents who seem to be devoted to letting him find his own way. And there's no doubting that he leads a life of privilege, as they are always ready to wire money -- or even make a large investment as requested.
When he finally chooses a career, his uncle has all the connections to move him to the front of the line and get the best opportunity.

All of which he can comfortably take for granted. His only challenge is his own mind, which is so impulsive it made for quite a dramatic story, putting me on the edge of my chair, and leaving me there as the book abruptly ended with him embarking on a career and a marriage, neither of which felt very secure.

Chandran has already shown himself quite capable of throwing everything aside, and
his decision to marry was made by flipping a coin with his friend, the poet.

Brave, intelligent, creative, and highly spirited --- I just don't seem him selling newspaper subscriptions and married to the same woman all his life.

But then -- the novel's abrupt ending seems to emphasize the abrupt change in our hero's life, for it is the first example of him acting to take care of someone else

He is no longer a bachelor, so this story is over.

And though I was always anxious that the smart and high spirited Chandran would disappoint his family and abandon a conventional, comfortable life, on reflection I recall that he was introduced to us as he lead a formal debate on the question of "First, we kill all historians".

He didn't choose that topic or that assertion -- it was given to him - and he pursued it comically/cynically as good advice for a despot. So this exemplifies him doing as he's told - however brilliantly he does it

But we might also remember that the practice of writing history was forcefully carried into Indian civilization by the invading Muslims. Since truth is timeless, Hindu culture had no historians.


Two of the major events in this story are driven by astrology: the failed betrothal to cute girl #1, and the successful betrothal to cute girl #2. (the author hardly speaks to either one of them, so in this particular story, they are only cute girls.)

His great supporter, without whom he may never have been published, was Graham Greene who speculated in the introduction that this second marriage was enabled by a "dubious, even dishonest horoscope"

But I am doubting that the occupational pride of the astrologer who arranged it would have allowed him to falsify it.

The first betrothal failed because Chandran's chart showed that he wife was destined to die young if he married before the age of 25. He was already 23 at that time, and as I calculate it,after his 8 months of wandering as a holy beggar, would have been old enough to avoid that condition with cute girl #2 if the wedding was delayed by a year. (which it was)


Graham Greene's introduction also singles out the following passage as an example of the "Indian twang which lends so much charm to his style":

‘Excuse me. I made a vow never to touch alcohol in my life, before my mother,” said Chandran. This affected Kailas profoundly. He remained solemn for a moment and said: “Then don’t. Mother is a sacred object. It is a commodity whose value we don’t realise as long as it is with us. One must lose it to know what a precious possession it is. If I had had my mother I should have studied in a college and become a respectable person. You wouldn’t find me here.
After this where do you think I’m going?”“I don’t know.”
“To the house of a prostitute.” He remained reflective for a moment and said with a sigh: “As long as my mother lived she said every minute ‘Do this don’t do that’. And I remained a good son to her. The moment she died I changed. It is a rare commodity, sir. Mother is a rare commodity.”’

But it also does a succinct job of explaining Brahmin culture to Europeans - and those Europeans seem to be Narayan's target audience. (after all, Greene helped him find a European, not an Indian, publisher.


Saturday, August 06, 2011

R.K. Narayan : Swami and his Friends

A perfect little book that's about so much more than just little Swami getting kicked out of school.

It made me feel like I was inside a Tamil Brahmin family.

Poor grandma!

A widow now, her bed is her only possession, and it's parked in a dark hallway in her son's small home. She gets love, but not much respect.

And caste distinctions are quite sharp, as Swami and his young companions have no compunctions about lording it over those beneath them in the social order.

They're little monsters -- but though they're mean to other children, as Brahmins, they wouldn't think of harming an animal, even a spider. (Swami ponders taking one as a pet).

Quite memorable is Swami's dispute with a Christian teacher at his school. How can Jesus be a holy person if he eats fish?

Swami is too impulsive to get very far at school. Practical problems in algebra distract him with their practicality. So when asked to calculate the cost of a mango, he wants to know how ripe it is. Which marks him as more of an artist than a pedant - suggesting that this story is autobiographical.

He may be a washout at school, but he will probably be a success in life, since he tries to surround himself with the kids he admires for a variety of qualities: strength, humor, smarts, courage, and the one he admires most is the most likely to succeed: the son of a police chief .

The story was written and set in 1930, in the midst of the ongoing campaign, then led by Ghandi, for Indian independence, so young Swami will be growing up even as his nation is, and his first participation is rather clumsy as he burns his homespun cap thinking that its British made, breaks some school windows in a mob rampage, and bullies some smaller children.

And that's what I like about this book.

There may be a thick atmosphere of sentimentality, but these kids are about as dumb and mean as kids can be.

It's all in a child's-world-view, but that view never leaves us, does it? The inner voice in me that chatters away throughout the day seems to be no older, smarter, or kinder than little Swami.


On further reflection - this is basically a romance -- the story of unrequited love of little Swami for Mr. Perfection (Rajam)who has it all: looks, smarts, money, courage, leadership, and fluency in English. And it's even something of a love triangle:

"For a moment, Swaminathan was filled with the darkest jealousy. Mani to sleep in Rajam's house, keep him company till the last moment, talk and laugh till midnight, and he to be excluded! He wanted to cling to Mani desperately and stop his going"

But alas, he is also Mr. Unobtainable -- making impossible demands and finally moving out of town anyway.

Swami's parting gift, which Rajam received from the outstretched hand of Mani as his train was leaving the station, was Andersen's "Fairy Tales" (which Swami couldn't read anyway due to so many difficult English words)