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, October 25, 2011

R.K. Narayan : The Financial Expert

Spoiler alert: don't read these comments before reading the book.


Because the denouement is so sudden and dramatic.

Narayan's autobiographical period is over, and this book is more like a fable, so we don't get as close to the central character, whom, indeed, Narayan despises.

Concerning that protagonist, Margayya, I was puzzled about that most important fact concerning any Hindu character, his caste, and this question was not answered until nearly the last chapter. His parents and grandparents were farmers, but his great grandparents handled corpses, which is as low as it gets.

He's a low rent money lender, then a publisher of pornography, and finally achieves his apotheosis of financial success, and ruin, by running a Ponzi scheme. How despicable! And how timely - thanks to Bernie Madoff and family.

His virtues, if you'd call them that, are those of the termite. He's hard working, persistent, and he sticks with his family. After having ruined everyone who foolishly trusted him, he's quite ready to start all over again. Interestingly enough, unlike Madoff, he doesn't go to prison, so apparently no crime was committed. Madoff was convicted of securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, making false statements, perjury, theft from an employee benefit plan, and making false filings with the SEC. But Margayya simply promised a high return on investments all of which he kept stashed away in his own house. When investors demanded all their money back, he paid them off until he ran out of cash. Then he filed bankruptcy. Where was the crime?

And he's fond of children. The most important purchase he ever made was his son: he promised to give the temple his weight in silver if his wife ever bore one (I love how he had to pay it off immediately since the infant's weight would only get greater). And the story ends as he enjoys the presence of his grandson, even if it's the result of his son being evicted from property taken as part of the bankruptcy settlement.

Despite the catastrophe he brought most of those who either borrowed or lent him money, he seems to have had exactly the kind of money-centered life for which he had successfully prayed. And fittingly enough, the character who appears while he attempts to fulfill his obligations to the god of wealth, is the same character who gives and then takes it all away.

So it's a charming fable, told with the condescending, humorous dismay that a brahmin feels for an enterprising peasant. It's a picture of a well-ordered but utterly stagnant society. Wealth is not being used for any kind of positive development, but on the other hand, Margyya packs his house with bags of cash, and doesn't have to worry about security.

As so ends my fascination with N. K Narayan. There was something so thrilling about the stories based upon his own life. But when he turns he eye outward, the sharp edge is gone, and charm replaces sincerity.