Sex, Symbolism, Illusion and Reality in R K Narayan's The Guide

by Amitangshu Acharya
The sky was clear. Having nothing else to do, he started counting the stars. He said to himself, 'I shall be rewarded for this profound service to humanity. People will say, 'there is the man who knows the exact number of stars in the sky. If you have any trouble on that account consult him. He will be your night guide for the skies'.'  

Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience. (Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain) [1]

R K Narayan propagates Oriental philosophy in all his novels and The Guide [2] is no exception. In Hindu philosophy realisation of the truth comes after going through the acid test of illusion or 'maya'.* I would add that the ability to perceive 'reality' is the end product of experience. Followers of Lord Krishna regard humans as souls composed of Krishna's highest energy, with bodies of 'maya,' his lowest, material, and illusory energy. This belief also entails taboos against gambling, using intoxicants, eating meat, and engaging in illicit sex. Performing God's work with no thought of reward will result in the purification of the illusory 'maya'.

The illusion in Raju's life is Rosie, who entices him away from the daily grind of normal life. When Raju sees her for the first time, he describes her,

complexion not white, but dusky, which made her only half visible, as if you saw her through a film of tender coconut juice.

Much later, in Chapter 9, again she is described thus,

Her face was partially illuminated by a shaft of gaslight from a lamp hanging from a tree.

Thus Raju never views Rosie in the real world but almost in a dream, and Rosie becomes the 'mohini'* of the novel. Her meeting Raju on the railway platform is significant since until then the railway has been his life, but with Rosie's entrance his familiar world will be disrupted. He will be tempted to discard his attachment to the railway for a far greater and passionate attachment.

Rosie's role as the 'mohini' in Raju's life is confirmed by her obsession with snakes. The animal imagery has been well used by Narayan. The role of snake-women as enchantresses is common in the Indian mind-frame. Moreover, we have the conversation between Rosie and Raju's mother, (a traditional Indian woman steeped in religious and folk beliefs), to reinforce this notion:

Everything was so good and quiet - until you came in like a viper. . . . On the very day I heard him mention the 'serpent girl' my heart sank.

There is something strongly sensuous about Rosie. She exudes sensuality since she has been involved in a marriage that does not satisfy her physical needs. There is enough evidence in the text to suggest that there is no sexual communion between the married couple. In chapter 5, we have Raju's own words to back this theory:

Next morning I found the atmosphere once again black and tense - all the vivacity of the previous evening was gone. When their room opened, only he came out, fully dressed and ready . . . I poured him a cup of coffee.

'Joseph has brought tiffin. Will you not taste it?'

'No; let us be going. I'm keen on reaching the caves.'

'What about the lady?' I asked.

'Leave her alone,' he said petulantly. 'I can't afford to be fooling around, wasting my time.' In the same condition as yesterday! This seemed to be the spirit of their morning every day. How cordially he had come over and sat beside her last night on the veranda! How cordially they had gone into the hotel on that night! What exactly happened at night that made them want to tear at each other in the morning? . . . I wanted to cry out, 'Oh, monster, what do you do to her that makes her sulk like this on rising?'

In Chapter 9 the point is finally driven home:

'He wouldn't even touch you.'

'Should you taunt me with that?' she asked with sudden submissiveness.

The artist in Rosie needs stimulus, both intellectual and physical. Marco provides the first type to a small extent while providing absolutely nothing of the second. The almost animal-like passion lurking within Rosie and Raju is symbolically projected when they are waiting in Peak House on the veranda to watch the animals come out. Narayan is very subtle in his use of language, allowing us the freedom to read beyond the text:

On the way she said to me (Raju), 'Have you documents to see too?'

'No, no,' I said, hesitating midway between my room and hers.

'Come along then. Surely you aren't going to leave me to the mercy of prowling beasts?'

. . .

'I'm prepared to spend the whole night here, she said. 'He will, of course, be glad to be left alone. Here at least we have silence and darkness, welcome things, and something to wait for out of that darkness.'

I couldn't find anything to say in reply. I was overwhelmed by her perfume. The stars beyond the glass shone in the sky.

. . .

Bright eyes shone amidst the foliage. She pulled my sleeve and whispered excitedly, 'Something - what can it be?'

'Probably a panther,' I said to keep up the conversation. Oh, the whispers, the stars, and the darkness - I began to breathe heavily with excitement.

This part of the conversation almost sounds like lovemaking. It is interesting to note that Marco too, joins them immediately after but leaves within a very short time. I personally believe that his leaving is primarily because he cannot respond to that animal lust since he is sexually impotent.

Now we must consider a very important question which many readers of The Guide have probably asked, 'Who is seducing whom?' My earlier suggestion that Rosie is a 'mohini' should not be taken to mean that she is playing the role of the mythological seductress consciously. 'Mohini' is another aspect of the 'maya' that Raju is steeped in; she can be also called a living embodiment of the illusion in Raju's life. Here I would like to quote again from Soul Mountain:

'Do you believe that sensuality is devoid of evil?' I ask.

'All women are sensual but they always give a sense of goodness, and this is essential to art,' he says.

'Then don't you believe in the existence of beauty which is not devoid of evil?'

'That's just man deceiving himself,' he says curtly.

It has been pointed out that Rosie does encourage Raju in certain areas. When Raju goes to plead with her to come out and join him and Marco on their trip to Peak House, the conversation does seem to show a certain degree of attraction on Rosie's part towards Raju:

'Why do you want me to go out with him? Leave me in peace,' she said, opening her eyes wide, which gave another opportunity to whisper close to her face, 'Because life is so blank without your presence.'

She could have pushed my face back, crying 'How dare you talk like this!' and shut the door on me. But she didn't. She merely said, 'I never knew you would be such a troublesome man.'

Later in the same chapter we find this motif being reinforced:

'So you have no mother-in-law!' I said.

'I'd have preferred any kind of mother-in-law, if it had meant one real, live husband,' she said. I looked up at her to divine her meaning, but she lowered her eyes. I could only guess.

It would be erroneous to call this 'seduction', or subtle encouragement. This is the frank and free speech of a woman who desperately needs the warmth of company. The desire is within her but she never uses seduction to satisfy it. Raju acts like a professional lover, knowing exactly how to draw her in into the tangled web of lust. The question still remains as to why Rosie allowed Raju to have sex with her. The main motivation was not lust, but something described by Raju before he enters her room:

I knew I had placed her in my debt.

The debt is for his giving her the attention and care she needs, and she has to redeem it. Moreover the entire affair would have been over had not Raju very intelligently kept on reminding her of a future career in dancing with his active support. Raju desperately needs to hang on this 'maya', and when he enters her bedroom he also,

locked the door on the world.

His absorption into the world of illusion is now complete. That Raju is seduced by the charm of the illusion is suggested by Narayan's use of language. For example:

Everything disappeared into a sweet, dark haze, as under chloroform. (ch.5)

I was obsessed (ch.7)

I viewed her as pure abstraction. (ch.7)

It was a natural obsession. (ch.7)

I got used to a glamorous, romantic existence. (ch.7)

Are you in this world or in paradise? (ch.8)

I was slipping into a fool's paradise. (ch.8)

If Raju can provide Rosie with the physical stimulation she needs then why does their union become incompatible? The reason is clear. Raju, with his lack of proper education can never provide Rosie with the creative stimulation she needs. He bluffs left right and centre about his appreciation of her talent because it is that loose string by which their relationship survives. Raju may have given her a 'new lease of life' but as she reminds us through the rendition of the Tamil song, for her 'Lover means always God.' As Rosie gets absorbed in her own world, Raju is slowly pushed out since he is fundamentally incapable of being a part of that sphere of pure creativity. The growing tension in their relationship is seen, for example, in these passages:

Whenever I watched her sway her figure, if there was no one about I constantly interrupted her performance although I was supposed to watch her from an art critic's point of view. She pushed me away with, 'What has come over you?'

She was a devoted artist; her passion for physical love was falling into place and had ceased to be a primary obsession with her.

. . .

I made love to her constantly and was steeped in an all-absorbing romanticism, until I woke up to the fact that she was really getting tired of it all.

Finally Raju admits his shortcomings in Chapter 9 where he fails to fall into place with the musicians and actors who come to visit Rosie/Nalini. He admits to,

feeling that I was an interloper in that artistic group.

This is where we suddenly realise why Rosie has a tremendous amount of respect for Marco, even after she has left him permanently. The two are similar in nature since both prefer being captivated by their individual work. Both are artists wrapped up in their art. Raju may say of Marco that,

dead and decaying things seemed to unloosen his tongue and fire his imagination

But there is not much difference between the absorption of Rosie/Nalini in her world of aesthetics and Raju in his world of lust and power. The conflict is in the fact that each world cannot accommodate the other, and hence we are left with three individuals at the end of the novel.

Does Raju finally manage to transform himself into a true 'swami'? Perhaps this passage suggests an answer:

The sky was clear. Having nothing else to do, he started counting the stars. He said to himself, 'I shall be rewarded for this profound service to humanity. People will say,' there is the man who knows the exact number of stars in the sky. If you have any trouble on that account consult him. He will be your night guide for the skies.' He told himself, 'the thing to do is to start from a corner and go on patch by patch. Never work from the top to the horizon, but always the other way.' He was evolving a theory. He started the count from above a fringe of the Palmyra trees on his left-hand side up the course of the river, over to the other side. 'One.... two.... fifty-five....' He suddenly realised that if he looked deeper a new cluster of stars came into view; by the time he assimilated it into his reckoning, he realised he had lost sight of his starting point and found himself entangled in hopeless figures. He felt exhausted.

This passage assumes a great deal of significance in showing the gradual stages of Raju's development from a normal everyday guide to a guide for the progress of the soul. The title of the novel assumes greater importance since its scope now becomes deeper. The novel is now seen to no longer simply narrate the story of a guide called 'Railway Raju', but also shows how the same guide assumes a role far greater in meaning.

In this passage lies the seed for the 'swami' Raju who will set an example of selflessness by guiding his fellow humans across the never-ending river of life. Moreover this passage denotes Raju's transition from the life active to the life contemplative - a transition from illusion to reality. This counting of the stars or measuring the immeasurable is a symbolic portrayal of Raju trying to fathom the immensity of life. He gets exhausted easily since for the first time he is contemplating an aspect of the world which is not only bereft of personal gain but also has no material implication in his personal life. As Narayan tells us in the novel itself,

His life had lost its personal limitations.

This propels Raju to contemplate the limitless expanse of life, and to attempt the absorption of that limitlessness in him. It is almost a Herculean task and the effort drains him emotionally more than physically.

So, what is The Guide all about? In my view it is the story of one man's journey through life. It is his journey through a maze of illusions and the achievement of universal truth. Here we may use the concept of moksha,* or freedom, as stated by the Hindu philosopher and theologian Shankara, who said that existence is a struggle for 'Atman'* (the individual self) to become 'Brahman'* (the pure being) where the atman is prevented from reaching the ideal state of Brahman because of 'avidya' or ignorance, which drives us into the arms of maya (illusion) where we blindly seek our true self. Through the proper knowledge of Vedanta, however, the individual soul recognises the limitless reality forever existing behind the cosmic veil of maya, realises that its own true nature is identical with Brahman, and through this self-realisation achieves moksha. Through Raju Narayan invites us to share the limitlessness of this freedom which unifies us with the cosmos.

* Glossary

Maya: The word has been given numerous meanings. Maya actually signifies the psychological state of anybody under illusion. Therefore it doesn't prescribe the theory that the world is an illusion but rather that the illusion actually lies in our point of view.

Mohini: In Indian mythology, during the churning of the oceans by the demons and the Gods in an attempt to produce 'amrita' or the elixir of life which would grant them immortality, Vishnu transformed himself into a beautiful woman called Mohini and stole the demons' share of the elixir by seducing them. Therefore Mohini in the Indian context signifies an extension of the divine illusion. Vishnu is sometimes referred to as 'Mayavi' or the creator of 'maya'.

Moksha: The Hindu equivalent of the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana. Moksha, in Hinduism signifies liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and from maya (the illusory appearance in this world). Moksha is a Sanskrit word meaning 'liberation.'

Bramhan: The basis of Hinduism is the idea that the multitude of things and events around us are but manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality is called the Bramhan. It is the inner essence of all things.

Atman: The manifestation of the ultimate reality in the human soul is the Atman. It is the individual reality.

1. Xingjian, Gao. Soul Mountain. Translated by Mabel Lee. 1990
2. Narayan, R. K. The Guide. 1975 (First published 1958)

© Amitangshu Acharya, June 2003

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R K Narayan The Guide Early Indian Women Writers Modern Indian Women Writers  
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