Archive for the ‘Indian literature’ Category

“The Painter of Signs” by R. K. Narayan

*** SPOILER ALERT: I suppose it’s fair to warn readers who care about such things that this post may contain a couple of mild spoilers for those who haven’t read it. But I don’t think there’s anything here that would spoil the experience of a first reading. ***


It is difficult to write about Narayan without using adjectives such as “elegant”, “charming”, “delightful”. For, indeed, he is all of these things. There are readers who prize him precisely because he is so effortlessly enchanting – although, of course, it must take tremendous effort to appear so effortless. But it seems to me that, quite often, there are darker themes lurking in there. Narayan never short-changes these darker themes, but so gentle is the narrative voice, and so formidable the charm, the reader can easily be tempted to overlook them. Or, at best, see them as but minor flies in an otherwise emollient ointment.

The Painter of Signs is a case in point. Looking around the net, many, I see, read this as a bittersweet love story, a quirky and whimsical romance. Maybe it’s my own vision that is too gloomy, but I really cannot see it in such terms. Yes, it has all the trademark charm of Narayan, and all the gentle and compassionate humour one expects from him, but I found it nonetheless troubling. “Bittersweet”? Not much sweetness here as far as I can see. And if it is indeed a love story, it’s a damn strange one.

The principal character, Raman, is depicted in third person, but we are rarely outside his head: the world is shown as he sees it, and his vision is limited. He is very characteristic of the figures who populate Narayan’s novels: as Naipaul put it, Narayan’s novels are full of “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Raman is the “painter of signs” of the title – a title that invites us to search for a metaphorical interpretation, but then, rather teasingly, refuses to make any such interpretation obvious. For a painter of signs is literally what he is. He paints signs for small businesses in the fictional town of Malgudi. But he is an artist. Or, at least, a craftsman who believes in the importance of his work, and takes it seriously. In the early pages, we follow Raman dealing with various eccentric customers, and the gentle wit and subtle humour of the writing reassure us that we are indeed in an enchanted and enchanting fictional world.

But the sense of security is a false one. Raman is a bachelor, living with an aged aunt, and he is – should we choose to look beneath the surface charm – clearly sexually frustrated.

Then, Raman meets with, and, although he doesn’t quite realise it himself, falls in love with, a newcomer to town, Daisy – an unusual Western name for an Indian. She is independent, and is working on a government scheme promoting birth control. (This novel was published in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and birth control was then very high on the agenda.) And, to go with her un-Indian name, she is also very independent: disciplined, strong-willed, business-like, and unattached. In a strongly patriarchal society, a young woman, on her own, looking after herself unaided and unintimidated, was something of a rarity.

She employs Raman to paint various signs for her campaign, and soon, he finds himself accompanying her on tours around various remote villages, as she speaks to massed assemblies of strangers on the intimate details of birth control with unembarrassed and business-like frankness. There is much comic potential in all this, of course, but Narayan is careful not to overdo it: his humour, as ever, is subtle, and subtlety frequently demands understatement. And anyway, Narayan has more important matters in mind.

For Raman is clearly attracted to her, although it is unclear whether this is love – as those who insist on seeing this as a “bittersweet love story” will have it – or a manifestation of his unfulfilled sexual desire. But when he fantasises about her, as he frequently does, he – rather pathetically given his somewhat feeble personality – imagines Daisy as someone dependent on him. For this, after all, is what he has unwittingly absorbed in the society in which he has grown up: woman is weak, and man, being the stronger, protects woman; and hence, woman is dependent on man; and hence, so should Daisy be dependent on him. The very notion of the strong-willed and determined Daisy being dependent upon a milksop like Raman is, of course, absurd, but Raman does not see the absurdity of it. Until, one night, the fantasy of Daisy being dependent upon him slips over into a fantasy of Daisy being dominated by him, and he tries to rape her. She, alert to the situation, gives him the slip; and even if she hadn’t, it seems unlikely that Raman would have had the strength to get the better of her. But that’s hardly the point: the intention was there. Whatever idea we may have had till now of this being a “bittersweet love story” is here shattered.

Raman almost immediately regrets his attempt. When he meets Daisy again, he is shamefaced. But so wrapped up is he in his own self, so unaware is he of Daisy as an autonomous being, that, quite without irony, he thanks her for saving him from himself: it hardly occurs to him that saving him must surely have been the last thing on Daisy’s mind.

We find out later about Daisy’s past. She had, even as a child, rebelled against the stifling patriarchy of her family background, and, rather than be married off, had run away. She had been taken up by a Christian mission, and had adopted the Western name Daisy – after a flower that does not even grow in India. Just as Raman never really gets to know her as a person, neither does he, or we, the readers, get to know her real name. She is determined to be independent, and yet, if we read between the lines, she is also lonely. And for some time, she sees in Raman a possible solution – as someone who, despite the weaknesses of his character, could provide, if nothing else, companionship. Raman, of course, leaps at the chance offered: by this stage, he is obsessed with her. His aged aunt, a devout lady, is horrified: not only would he (most likely) be breaking caste by such a marriage, he would also be breaking religion – for surely a woman with an un-Indian name like Daisy must be a Christian! Rather than tolerate this, she asks to go on pilgrimage to the source of the sacred Ganges, expecting, given her advanced years, never to return. Raman raises no objection: far from it – he offers his own money to help her. And in any case, it’s barely “marriage” that he and Daisy are planning: Raman has found some ancient Hindu form of marriage that does not require a ceremony – what we would nowadays simply describe as a couple “shacking up together”. But it has the imprimatur of the Hindu religion itself, and that’s good enough for Raman.

Of course, it is hardly to be expected that things eventually work out. It’s all too complex. Lovers meet, lovers part … it is, I suppose, a “bittersweet love story” after all. There is certainly a tremendous sadness and sense of desolation about it all, especially towards the end. And there is, as ever with Narayan, compassion for his characters. Raman, after all, is no villain: the patriarchy that he has grown up with, and has unwittingly absorbed, has damaged him, and he cannot even recognise, let alone understand, the deep frustrations pent up within himself. And there’s Daisy, determined, intelligent, but doomed forever to be lonely. For all the humour, it’s a tremendously sad novel.

Bittersweet love story? Quirky and whimsical romance? Yes, I suppose it is, in its own way, all of these things. But that hardly seem adequate to describe so wise and so subtle, and, indeed, so disturbing a novel as this.

“Talkative Man” by R. K. Narayan

There’s something very comforting about Narayan’s novels.

This does not seem like a recommendation for the works of a serious novelist. For comforting is what lesser novelists do: serious novelists, who deal with serious themes, write books that are provocative, challenging, disturbing, and so on; they examine the human condition, the angst, the pain of being alive, the failed relationships – both with others and with ourselves; the failure to understand or even to come to terms with all this unintelligible world; and so on, and so forth. Strange thing is, Narayan also deals with many of these themes. And yet, without diminishing the importance of these themes, he is comforting. And I think this is because he is happy to accept human beings as they are. He will present people who are obviously inadequate to the demands of living; he will present us with rogues, with blowhards, with fools, with imbeciles; and yet, he never looks down on them – there is never the slightest hint of malice, or of rancour. He loves his characters, whoever they are.

Talkative Man is one of his later novels, published in 1982, and is also among his shortest: indeed, he adds a postscript apologising for its being so short, and explaining that he couldn’t possibly have made it any longer without expanding into areas he would prefer not to. Of course, his tongue is well in his cheek here: he knew that the novel – or extended short story, of you prefer – was just right as it was. It’s hard not to see, either here in the postscript or in the novel itself, the twinkle in the author’s eye.

The story itself is slight, and, as so often with Narayan, gently and endearingly eccentric. The narrator is a man who lives on inherited wealth, but likes to imagine himself a freelance journalist: he rushes here and there, writes stories, and sends them to local papers; and sometimes, these stories get published. He comes into contact with a the mysterious  stranger Dr Rann, who, after arriving in Malgudi by train, promptly installs himself in the station waiting room, and refuses to leave. The station master is too timid to tell Rann he can’t stay there, while Rann quite happily berates the station-master for not looking after him properly. Then, for no apparent reason, merely to get him off the station-master’s hands, the narrator – the “talkative man”, as he describes himself – takes this Dr Rann into his own house. If all this sounds very strange, it is: but it all seems to happen so naturally in Narayan’s fictional world.

Rann says he is working on some unspecified United Nations project. He has a bee in the bonnet about some weed that is indestructible, and that will, he insists, inevitably take over the earth and prevent crops from growing; and that unless this threat is addressed urgently, mankind itself is doomed. Now, this is serious stuff: Rann is given every respect as a learned man on whom the very future of the world depends.

Then, a lady turns up who claims to be Rann’s abandoned wife, and the narrator, for no reason credible anywhere outside the confines of Narayan’s fictional world, tries to protect his house-guest from her. This house-guest, meanwhile, is planning to seduce an innocent young local girl, and that, the narrator feels, has to be stopped. And so on. You get the idea – it is all utterly mad, and yet, there seems a weird logic underlying it all.

The story, dotty though it is, is essentially about people who have to invent fictions about themselves in order to live their lives. The narrator has to pretend to himself he is an important journalist; Dr Rann has to pretend to himself he is a scientist engaged on vital research; and his abandoned wife, Sarasa, has to pretend that Rann can be domesticated, and turned into an ideal husband. They are all deluded, of course. And yes, there are a lot of laughs in all this: Narayan’s comic timing is subtle and delicious, turning often on a single beautifully worded and perfectly placed phrase. (It helps, of course, that he couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to.) But never, at any point, does he look down on any of these utterly absurd people he has created. If they are ridiculous and deluded, well, aren’t we all? And isn’t a warm and affectionate laughter of acceptance a better reaction to all this than angst and despair?

It would have been easy for Narayan to have used his natural charm to skate over serious themes, and there was a time when I used to think that he did just that: but I was wrong. The themes he tackles he deals with seriously – but there is always that endearing dottiness and that twinkle in the authorial eye to ensure that no matter how serious the theme, the tone remains light. In The English Teacher, Narayan had depicted first simple happiness (the most difficult thing any writer of fiction can, I think, depict), followed by the pain of bereavement, desolation, and, at the end, transcendence; in Mister Sampath the Printer of Malgudi, he had depicted a failure to engage with life, and indifference posing as a lofty detachment; in The Guide, he had depicted sexual obsession, and, by the end, an unlooked-for martyrdom. (Having read most of Narayan’s work now, I take these three novels, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to be his finest.) These are all serious themes; and yet, so beguiling is the writing, so apparently easy the style, that it is easy to miss the seriousness.

Talkative Man is a slighter work, perhaps, than some of his earlier novels, but, even in his old age (he was in his late 70s when this was published) he had lost none of his skill. The world he presents is utterly enchanting; Narayan himself is, as ever, charm personified. But the seriousness is there if one looks for it. And it is all presented with so good-natured a laugh, that we come away thinking that the world is not, perhaps, so bad a place after all.

A Narayan novel always makes me think: “If it really is this easy to write a novel, how come I can’t write one?” The answer is fairly obvious, I’m afraid. It takes  the greatest of skill to make novel-writing look so damn easy.

“When the Time is Right” by Buddhadeva Bose

No matter how slow the underlying tempo, a structured narrative requires a movement towards a particular end. But the problem is that our lives aren’t structured in this manner. The shapes our lives take are determined by all sorts of arbitrary events, unfortunate accidents, random surprises – none of which are foreshadowed, or held together by cunningly devised symbols and  leitmotifs. Life, essentially, is drift. And yet if fiction attempts to depict life in such a manner, all we are likely to end up with an unseemly, unstructured mess. There is little point in protesting that this is precisely what our lives are: the mysterious rules that govern life are very different from the almost equally mysterious rules that govern art.

041So this naturally creates a problem when an author attempts to depict life as, essentially, drift. It is a problem that is addressed with superb skill in the novel Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose. Published in 1949, it is a renowned novel in the Bengali-speaking world, though sadly virtually unknown in the West. This fine translation by Arunava Sinha deserves to make many friends outside the Bengali-speaking world, but unfortunately, it is neither publicised nor distributed outside India, and it comes without any sort of notes or glossary that, one might have thought, would have been indispensable to non-Indian readers. Given my own background I had little difficulty in following it, but anyone unfamiliar with the very elaborate system of address within an extended Bengali family, for instance, is bound to be somewhat flummoxed by the various Chhordis and Jamaibabus and Chhotomashis that pepper the text. Most confusing of all is Mama, which in Bengali refers to the mother’s brother, but means something quite different in Western languages. Given the effort that has gone into this fine translation, the publishers (Penguin India) could surely have provided a glossary to clarify these matters.

A few notes may also have been added on the various customs and traditions prevalent in this particular society. Once again, I had no problem following these, but only when I see them laid out in a novel does it strike me how very odd, and, frequently, downright bizarre so many of them are. Most of these customs and traditions, I imagine, readers could pick up for themselves from the context, but this is not always the case. For instance, there is one point where Saswati has to force herself to mention her husband Harit by name, and most Western readers would interpret this, I imagine, as an indication of how hateful her husband is to her. However, within Bengali culture, it has traditionally been taboo to refer to anyone older than oneself by name (hence the very elaborate system of address within a family); and, given that the wife is almost invariably younger (sometimes very much younger) than the husband, this taboo has been particularly strong within marriage. However, in this instance, Harit, who regards himself as progressive, has obviously insisted that his wife refer to him by name, and his wife, who has had a traditional upbringing, finds this difficult. I really cannot see how a Western reader can be expected to understand something like this without notes.

A list of character names may also have been provided, especially given that the five sisters at the centre of this novel – Shweta, Mahashweta, Saraswati, Saswati and Swati – have such similar names. I do hope that Penguin India will see to these matters in future reprints, as the novel is clearly a work of considerable stature, the translation excellent, and the whole package deserving a wider readership. However, as things currently stand, if you live outside India, you will be very unlikely to find it in the bookshops (although a Google search will indicate the various mail order outlets from which it may be purchased).

Of course, there are many difficulties in translating from Bengali. The first involves the title itself, Tithidore.  Tithi, as I understand it, refers to phases of the moon – e.g. purnima-tithi refers to the full moon – so the whole thing refers to cycles of time. And dore is a string that is used to bind. So Tithidore means … well, figure it out for yourself! It is impossible to translate, or even to paraphrase, and When the Time is Right is certainly a better English title than any I could come up with.

The novel is a family saga, starting – calculating back from the ending – in the 1910s or so, and ending with the marriage of the principal character Swati – the youngest of the five sisters – in the early 1940s, with the talk amongst the wedding guests often touching on the possibility of the advancing Japanese armies bombing Calcutta. The politics of this turbulent era is a constant presence in the background, but it is never allowed to intrude into the foreground: this is not a political novel, but a domestic one: the war and the Independence movement make but a background rumble. The focus falls firmly on the family – initially on Rajen-babu and his wife Sisirkana, their five daughters and their son Bijon; and, as the novel progresses, increasingly on the expanding consciousness of the youngest daughter Swati.

The characters are all vividly depicted: indeed, it is the characters rather than the plot developments that hold our attention. The few elements of plot that emerge promising to lead to momentous events in the future don’t really, when it comes to it, lead to anything much: the son, Bijon, not the sharpest tool in the box, and resentful of his family that had never really loved him, becomes involved in what appears to be shady business. It probably is shady, but the dramatic developments we may have expected from this don’t develop: there is no disastrous failure, no criminal prosecution, no disgrace. Bijon’s business associate, the unrefined Majumdar, pays court to Swati, but this leads neither to scenes of an unhappy marriage, nor to dramatic scenes of confrontation and anger when he is refused. Saswati, the fourth of the five daughters, is married to the unpleasant Harit, a communist and idolator of Stalin: he imagines himself an intellectual, is uninterested in his wife, or, indeed, in anyone else around him, and looks down on everyone with barely disguised contempt and disdain. A marriage such as this would most likely have led to divorce in a society in which divorce is socially acceptable. But here, although their union is depicted as strained, there is no such dramatic development: no divorce – not even a dramatic confrontation. Life, as ever, seems to drift on in its seemingly aimless manner. This is, in many ways, quite the most non-dramatic novel I think I have come across: all drama – indeed, all possibility of drama – is eschewed.

At the centre of this novel is the growing consciousness of Swati, and her awareness of her love for Satyen, a teacher of literature. It is easy for the modern reader, especially perhaps the Western reader, to wonder why it takes these two so long to realise their love for each other, but in a society in which all marriages are arranged by parents, expectations are different. However, we do not find it difficult following the course of their thoughts, or the development of their perceptions: what is extraordinary is not that human beings are all the same – they clearly aren’t – but how at home we can feel in the minds even of those very different from ourselves.

Buddhadeva Bose takes his time. When characters meet, what they say to each other is given in full, and almost always in direct speech: there is no sense of compressing, or directing the reader’s attention to what is important, because here, everything is important. Neither is there any sense of urgency in moving the story along, because there is no specific end to move it towards. All this could have backfired disastrously were we not held so firmly by the characters, and by the intricate nature of the relationships between them. At each stage, it is the moment that is important, rather than what the moment might lead to.

And these moments are all so vividly painted, so we don’t care whether or not they lead to anything. Bose loves the big set-pieces – the big family reunion for the Durga-puja holidays; the visit to the cinema; the national mourning at the news of Rabindranath Tagore’s passing, and his funeral (“The Rabindranaths of this world don’t die,” Swati reflects, “they go away from time to beyond time, out of their bodies into people’s minds…”); and so on. After the scenes of Rabindranath’s funeral, comes a death closer to home: the husband of the eldest daughter, the good-natured Pramathesh, has a stroke and dies shortly afterwards. There has been no novelistic foreshadowing of this: it just happens, as these things do in life. Arbitrary, random.

And then, some 400 pages into the story, the narrative comes to an abrupt halt: the last 150 or so pages are taken up with a superb depiction of a Bengali Hindu wedding, with the camera cutting between and zooming in and out of different groups of people – the bride and groom, friends, close family members, distant cousins – observing them, reporting their talk on various matters, bringing the entire vast and crowded scene to teeming and utterly convincing life. It is a virtuoso piece of writing, But in this, the climactic section of the novel, there is no narrative movement at all: narrative has never been really the point. At the very end, in one of the most lyrical and melancholy endings to a novel I have come across, the family returns quietly to their dark and empty house after the wedding. Bengali syntax is very different from English, and translator Arunava Sinha in several passages maintains elements of the Bengali syntax, even if it means writing sentences that are ungrammatical in English, to convey something of the pace and rhythm of the Buddhadeva Bose’s prose; but one suspects that the prose even of the original breaks through all grammatical rules of syntax in this final passage:

… Shweta looked up at the sky, stars, silent; Swati didn’t stir, Satyen didn’t stir, both silent; the shadowy light of the lamp on the tray; hidden, shy, words that couldn’t be said, unforgettable; the door opened, dark; neither of them spoke, neither of them forgot; two of them in the dark room, two of them in the dark, side by side; shrunk, taut; didn’t speak, didn’t forget; Shweta stopped;  Rajen-babu, with his hand on the wall; taut; two lives, creatures, throbbing hearts, throbbing bodies; no eyes, eyes, open windows, black; black outside; stars in the black sky; distant, other side, other world; all that had happened, not happened, would keep happening, eternal; a sky of stilled stars looked on.

Buddhadeva Bose was a distinguished poet as well as novelist, and even when writing prose, he is not afraid to play with language as he would in a poem. It must be a nightmare to translate, but the effect is as affecting as it is startling.


For me, it was a curious experience reading this novel: the society depicted seemed at the same time very close and yet very distant. But when Buddhadeva Bose takes us into the minds of the various characters, I don’t think I had any difficulty understanding them. It is hard to understand why, given there exists a wide readership in the West that is genuinely interested in encountering other cultures through literature, this novel has not been more widely distributed and publicised: it certainly deserves to be. And it is very much to be hoped that if it is distributed more widely, Penguin India will provide some notes and glossaries for future editions.

The missing post: an explanation

If you look for Chapter 24 in the 4th volume of Tristram Shandy, you will find it missing. If you glance at the page numbers, you will find a gap of ten pages. At the start of Chapter 25, Sterne explains:

— NO doubt, Sir — there is a whole chapter wanting here — and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it — but the book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy — nor is the book a jot more imperfect, (at least upon that score) — but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it, as I shall demonstrate to your reverences in this manner  —

He then spends the rest of this chapter telling us what had been in the previous chapter that he had decided to omit. And then, he explains why he had to omit that previous chapter: it was not because it was not good enough, but, rather, that it was too good:

[The omitted chapter] appears to be so much above the stile and manner of anything else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene ; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipoise and balance, (whether of good or bad) betwixt chapter and chapter, from whence the just proportions and harmony of the whole work results.

Now, I wish I could claim as much for my own missing chapter – the post that had appeared here yesterday afternoon, and, having been up here for an hour or so for all to see, mysteriously vanished. Now that it has vanished, there is no reason why I shouldn’t make grand claims for it – that it was written in a style and manner so much above anything else I have written here, that retaining it would have destroyed the inner harmony of the blog, and so on. But no: the sad truth is that it was an intemperate post written in a fit of extreme annoyance; and that, once I had calmed down, I realised that it did little to advance the image I try to project of myself of a jovial, avuncular figure, radiating to all a genial goodwill and a Pickwickian benevolence.

Or something like that.

This is the article that had aroused my ire. I have had occasion to take issue with Robert McCrum before, but on that occasion, I had been merely amused by what I took to be the foolishness of his writing; on this occasion, I was angry, and one really should not write when one is angry. Or, at least, having written, one should not reach for that “publish” button.

This particular article of his is, admittedly, jokey, and not intended to be taken seriously, but nonetheless, I couldn’t overlook what he had to say about Indian literature:

This could be seen as a subset of either Booker lit or Commonwealth Lit, and is represented by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many others. For a while, it seemed as if the English literary tradition would be sustained exclusively by writers from the sub-continent.

That the only Indian writings one need bother with are those written in a Western language for a predominantly Western readership, while those written in one those funny little languages of theirs need not even be acknowledged, is a contention widely accepted though never explicitly stated amongst Western literati; and, for me, it is the proverbial red rag to a bull: I find it offensive and insulting – especially when it comes from someone who had been editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber for twenty years, and really should know better. And in immediate response, I wrote a post that was written in heat, and generated little light. I shouldn’t have done

In any case, I have already had a bit of a rant about this matter only quite recently.

The last word should, I think, go to Laurence Sterne:

— I question first by the bye, whether the same experiment might not be made as successfully upon sundry other chapters —

If there is any other post that you think this blog would be better without, do please let me know!