R. K. Narayan's Vision of Life

by Amitangshu Acharya

The law of life can't be avoided. The law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb. All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get away from it or in allowing ourselves to be hurt by it. A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.  

For R. K. Narayan, death is not a full stop. As he states in The English Teacher, it is more of a comma, with each hiatus leading to the birth of a new identity which replaces the previous one. But the western concept of identity as a mask is against Narayan's oriental philosophy. His protagonists do not merely play one role after the other, they live out one existence, which is not a performance but pure reality. As a Spectator review once put it, his success lies in portraying the 'extra-ordinary ordinariness' of day-to-day life.

Those who try to find existentialism, nihilism, magic realism, and all other kinds of 'ism' in Narayan's works will be disappointed, since western concepts have little to do with his vision of life. As a detailed reading shows, Narayan is steeped in Hindu philosophy, and though he discards many of its notions, he assimilates the basic truths. As he says in The English Teacher:

My knowledge of past, present and future strictly pertain to this life. Beyond that I have nothing to say, because I believe I shall once again be resolved into the five elements of which I am composed: and my intelligence and memory may not be more than what we see in air and water!

This view rules out the possibility of Narayan supporting the theory of Karma, but at the same time it is not a statement supporting the Epicurean theory of 'carpe diem' or 'seize the day'. Our deeds in this life will have repercussions in this life only, and through the realisation of our follies and delusions comes wisdom. He believes in making our faculties and experiences useful in this life, rather than accumulating them for an after-life. Narayan's view is that wisdom is not gained through meditation, or by spiritual contemplation, but by going through the experiences that life has to offer.

Raju in The Guide has an ordinary childhood, an extra-ordinary love affair, a parasitic life which extends to his term in jail. In plain and simple words, Narayan portrays a normal Indian man in different circumstances. I find no similarities between Raju and existential characters such as Mersault in Albert Camus's The Outsider. What happens to Raju has something in common with what happens to Savitri in The Dark Room when she tries to commit suicide after being driven out by her husband, to the headmaster in The English Teacher when he does not die on the day an astrologer predicted that he would, to Jagan in The Vendor of Sweets when his son Mali violates all his notions of life, and to Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts when he renounces everything and becomes a sanyasi. They all die a death, but this death is not an end but the starting point of a new life. As Narayan says about Chandran when he becomes a sanyasi because he couldn't marry a young girl called Malathi:

Others may renounce with a spiritual motive or purpose . . . But Chandran's renunciation was nothing of that kind. It was an alternative to suicide.

Through this symbolic death, however, emerges a Chandran who realises that he had been 'humbugging through life' and comes back to the mainstream, a thoroughly changed man.

The ending of The Guide leaves us an unresolved problem. Does Raju die at the end of the novel? My reading of Narayan tells me no. For the first time Raju has done something without any profit for himself, and the moment he has accomplished this selfless task he has renounced his previous life. Hence we are witnessing his rebirth, not death, and this is reinforced by the image of Raju as a baby. Like a phoenix, Raju annihilates the past and recreates himself.

Similarly, after her failed attempt at suicide, Savitri could be said to experience rebirth. She almost settles down to a new life, but has to go back to her previous existence since very strong bonds exist between her and her married life, especially in the form of her children. For Raju, the headmaster and Jagan, life has been renewed, as is evident in Jagan's statement near the end of the novel:

I am a free man.

But for Savitri, being a woman makes it impossible for her attain this freedom. Throughout The Dark Room Narayan portrays the helplessness of Indian women.

Throughout his work Narayan focuses how unique experiences change our vision of life. Raju's meeting with Rosie and his subsequent term in jail, Krishnan's sense of loss at the death of his wife Sushila, Jagan's clash of ideals with his son Mali, Chandran's infatuation for Malathi and his consequent sanyas, all change their perspective of life. Life to Narayan is the greatest teacher. The headmaster in The English Teacher tells us:

You may treat me as dead or as one who has taken Sanyasa Ashrama.

Jagan in The Vendor of Sweets, showing a similarity with Raju, says:

At some stage in one's life one must uproot oneself from the accustomed surroundings and disappear.

These statements also support my view that most of Narayan's characters are in quest of inner peace and freedom from the collective. Krishna tells us in The English Teacher, on his day of retirement:

Let me assure you I'm retiring, not with a feeling of sacrifice for a national cause, but for a very selfish purpose. I'm seeking a great inner peace.

This freedom, however, does not make them selfish. This is almost the Hinayana form of Buddhism where the salvation of the self is followed by the salvation of others. Raju's penance is for the greater common good, just as are the headmaster's and Krishna's. And The Vendor of Sweets ends with Jagan's statement that he will look after Grace, as is evident in his words, 'It's a duty we owe her.'

Instead of looking for threads of Existentialism, Narayan's characters can be analysed in the light of the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. Nirvana is a state of utter extinction, not of existence, but of passions and suffering; it is a state beyond the chain of causation (in the case of Raju), a state of freedom (Jagan). It is in addition a state of bliss (the headmaster). It is the truth of utter selflessness and insubstantiality of things, of the emptiness of the ego, and of the impermanence of all things. With the realization of this truth, ignorance is destroyed, and, consequently, all craving, suffering, and hatred is destroyed with it (Chandran)

Narayan states his law of life in The English Teacher:

The law of life can't be avoided. The law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb. All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get away from it or in allowing ourselves to be hurt by it. A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.

This view is complimented in The Vendor of Sweets:

We are blinded by our attachments. Every attachment creates a delusion and we are carried away by it.

Raju, Chandran, Krishna, and Jagan all try to escape from this law by clinging to various kinds of attachment, be it love for a woman, or for one's son but realisation does eventually come to them all.

Camus, Albert. The Outsider. 1942
Narayan's works referred to:
The Bachelor of Arts. 1937
The Dark Room. 1938
The English Teacher. 1945
The Guide. 1958
The Vendor of Sweets. 1967

© Amitangshu Acharya, October 2002

Essays on Indian Literature
R K Narayan The English Teacher
Krishna's Journey
R K Narayan The English Teacher
Two Teachers
R K Narayan's Vision of Life  
R K Narayan The Guide Early Indian Women Writers Modern Indian Women Writers  
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