R. K. Narayan’s The Guide: A Postcolonial Reading
R. K. Narayan’s The Guide: A Postcolonial Reading
R. K. Narayan, the most popular Indian novelist, is a postcolonial writer. His masterpiece, The Guide, abounds with postcolonial elements. Postcolonial writings are attempts at reviving the ethnic cultures, traditions, beliefs, languages etc. The postcolonial literature inculcates pride in one’s own ancient culture and traditions. It abounds in patriotic feelings. Postcolonialism aims at developing the national identity in the wake of colonial rule. It deals with the colonized people’s response to the colonial legacy by writing back to the centre. The indigenous peoples start to write their own histories, legacies, using often the colonizer’s language.
Looking at India from the Indian perspective is felt to be a postcolonial deconstruction of colonialism. Ellek Boehmer is of opinion that
the comic pastorals of R. K. Narayan . . . [which] emphasise the continuity and harmony of small-town India, are actually an instance of the Empire writing back. Referring to the fact that there are hardly any British characters in Narayan’s early pre-independence novels, she observes that ‘through the simple device of ignoring the British presence,’ these novels effectively dramatise a world ‘that existed quite independently of the colonial power’ (qtd. in Sen 107-108)
Narayan’s post-colonialism in The Guide is revealed neither through rejection of Westernisation nor through celebration of tradition. In the politics of representation, his position is that of the critical insider who is alive to the need to negotiate the contradictions of the post-colonial predicament. Narayan is not only aware of the inevitability of change, but also of the problems that attend the processes of change in a traditional society. “The interface between traditions and modernity is mediated with characteristic irony. Narayan is interested in looking at the extent to which the cultural life of the past can be viably integrated with the post-independence reality of India” (Sen 117).
After the impact of imperialism a new kind of subjectivity and society emerged in India. Indian modernity was not just an imitation of western modernity. The aspects of Indian modernity included enlightenment, rationality, science and western knowledge. To quote Makarand Paranjape:
Indian modernity marks its own distinct path. This path consists in taking critical aspects of western modernity and trying to combine them with India’s usable past. But because both western modernity and Indian traditions have multiple possibilities and processes, the self-constitution of India’s modernity becomes a plural and diverse adventure rather than any simplistic supplanting of tradition with modernity or the revival of tradition at the expense of modernity. Indian modernity is thus neither anti-traditional nor necessarily pro-western. It is, instead, a complex interplay of multitudinous forces which are sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory. Reform, revival, resistance, conflict, collusion, collaboration, capitulation, compromise, adoption, adaptation, synthesis, encapsulation, hybridity and multiculturalism are all a part of India’s experiment in modernization. (173)
R. K. Narayan’s novels teach what is especially different about Indian modernity. His books not only reflect the course of India’s recent social and cultural evolution, but actively articulate and arbitrate its various attitudes and stances. The western impact on Indian life and society is very well depicted in Narayan’s novels. The East-West theme is thus unavoidable in his novels. But Narayan has not presented this theme in terms of a vast social, economic or political conflict, nor in terms of a philosophical confrontation. Its dimensions are ethical, so deep and unobtrusive that one might easily miss it altogether. To quote O. P. Mathur from his essay “The Guide: A Study in Cultural Ambivalence,” “Narayan gives us the feel of life itself which is neither all white nor all black but the grey, twilight world of contemporary life quivering hesitatingly between tradition and modernity, East and West, inextricably mixed up in the minds of individuals . . .” (90). Narayan ridicules the exclusive orthodoxy of Indian conservatism and is clearly sympathetic towards modernity. His ironical attitude itself is largely western; it has few parallels in Pre-modern Indian authors.
The Guide was written between 1956 and 1958 when Narayan was in the United States. The circumstances which led him to write this novel were described in his memoir:
At this time I had been thinking of a subject for a novel; a novel about some one suffering enforced sainthood. A recent situation in Mysore afforded the setting for such a story. A severe drought had dried up all the rivers and tanks; Krishnaraja Sagar, an enormous reservoir feeding channels that irrigated thousands of acres, had also become dry, and its bed, a hundred and fifty feet deep, was not exposed to sky with fissures and cracks, revealing an ancient submerged temple, coconut stumps and dehydrated crocodiles. As a desperate measure, the municipal council organized a prayer for rains. A group of Brahmins stood knee-deep in water (procured at great cost) on the dry bed of Kaveri, fasted, prayed, and chanted certain mantras continuously for eleven days. On the twelfth day it rained, and brought relief to the country side.
This was really the starting point of The Guide. During my travels in America, the idea crystallized in my mind. I stopped in Berkeley for three months, took a hotel room and wrote my novel. (qtd. in Sundaram 73)
The Guide is in form of an autobiography. Raju, the hero of the novel, was in turn a rail road station food vendor, a tourist guide, a sentimental adulterer, a dancing girl’s manager, a swindler, a jail-bird and a martyred mystic. The story followed Raju along a curiously braided time sequence. After describing the early life and education of Raju, Narayan showed how Malgudi became a railway station and how Raju became the owner of a railway stall and then came to be a tourist guide. Trying to help a rich visitor, Marco, the archeologist, in his researches, Raju was involved in a tangle of new relationships. Rosie, Marco’s wife, became Raju’s lover. Abandoned by Marco, Rosie realized, with Raju’s help, her ambition of becoming a dancer. But Raju’s possessive instinct finally betrayed him into a criminal action, and he was charged and convicted for forgery. Coming out of the jail, he cut off all connection with the past. As he was mistaken as an ascetic he was compelled to lead a sanyasi life. Once again he was caught in the coils of his own self-deception, and he was obliged to undertake a twelve-day fast to end a drought that threatened the district with a famine. In vain he told his chief ‘disciple’ Velan the whole truth about himself and Rosie, and about the crash and incarceration. But nobody believed that he was anyone other than a saint. He had made his bed, and he had to lie on it. The reader is free to infer that, on the last day of the fast, he died opportunely, a martyr. Did it really rain, or was that only Raju’s optical delusion? Did he really die, or merely sank down in exhaustion? Had the lie really become the truth, or had that been merely exposed? The reader is free to conclude as he likes.
The Guide, one of the best novels in English language, became a best seller in the West as well as in India. The enormous success of the novel resulted in film version and Dev Anand produced it in Hindi and Pearl S. Buck in English. Narayan was not all happy of the film versions because none of them captured the spirit of the story. The English film was unsuccessful whereas the Hindi version was a commercial success. The Bombay film version was shot at exotic location in Rajastan instead of South India where the original novel was located. Dev Anand came in the role of Raju and Waheeda Rehman as Rosie. The Hindi Guide (as it was titled), was directed by Vijay Anand, with music by S. D. Burman. The film won Narayan the Film Fare Award for the best story. “Years later, in his tribute to Narayan after the author’s death in 2001, Dev Anand said, “If only we had managed to ignore the commercial aspects, Guide could have made a milestone in the history of cinema. . . . And the author would have been a happier man”” (qtd. in Sen 7).
The story of The Guide develops along a bewildering succession of time shifts. Since Narayan was in touch with South Indian film industry he could apply cinematic techniques of jump out, flash back, flash forward and montage in his plot construction. Thus the novel has an episodic structure rather than the linear plot of the more usual kind of novel, where the story moves in a singly cohesive curve from the beginning through the middle to the end. The unconventional plot of The Guide circles freely in time and space, both within and between chapters, moving from the past to the present and back again, and from Malgudi to the Mempi Hills to Mangal in a seemingly random way (Sen 15). Modern European and American novels influenced the novelists of Indian Writing in English and Narayan was no exception. Thus the Western fictional paradigms of bildungsroman and picaresque narrative are evident in The Guide. In fact The Guide is a bildungsroman of a rogue.
Narayan is a citizen-writer and his views and concerns are voiced in a complex manner through his characters and their conflicts. To quote Paranjape:
This is how Narayan’s novels show Indian society negotiating the complex terrain of the modern. Malgudi, in that sense, becomes a laboratory where various possibilities and positions are tried. The Guide, undoubtedly Narayan’s best-known novel, as a narrative of modern India . . . is about the nature of an ancient Indian institution, that of the guru, which indeed has no exact English counterpart. R. K. Narayan’s use of slightly lighter, slightly more frivolous and certainly more ambiguous word, “Guide,” is therefore telling. (174)
In his essay “The Reluctant Guru” Narayan expressed his resistance to the role of an authentic exponent of the mystic East, a guru or a sage, a role the people had foisted on him. He was very uncomfortable with that role, but he could not entirely shake it off. Going by the flimsy evidence of texts like The English Teacher and The Guide, his audience often demanded doses of Indian spirituality and mysticism from him. Narayan confessed that he felt himself in the same situation as Raju, who was mistaken for a saint and began to wonder at some point himself if sudden effulgence had begun to show on his face. Narayan was even telephoned by enthusiasts in the wee hours of the morning because it was assumed that he would be up and meditating at 4: 00 a.m.; he was asked if he could communicate with spirits; he was asked to predict the future; he was even importuned to help an earnest diasporic devotee attain a vision of the Goddess Kali! (Paranjape175). The title “Reluctant Guru” was also well-suited to Raju. Raju, like Narayan, was a most reluctant Guru. He had been called a guide, not a guru, because Narayan wished to underscore, even problematize, the very difficulties of such a traditional appellation and function. “Indeed it would almost seem that Narayan wishes to tone down “guru,” which etymologically conveys the idea of heavy, to something lighter, or Laghu in calling Raju a guide. But the crucial question is whether the slighter, lighter, or more ironic title of guide makes a real difference in the end” (Paranjape 176).
Rosie, Velan, Raju’s mother and uncle, Gaffur, the driver, Joseph, the steward of the bungalow where Marco stayed are all characters exhibiting the traditional Indian culture and ethos. Raju and Marco, on the contrary, bear features of Western or Modern culture and manners. Thus the conflict between tradition and modernity or influence of one over the other is evident in the behaviour and conversation of these characters throughout the novel. Some such situations where postcolonial elements are visible in the characters are portrayed below:
It was customary or traditional among the Hindus to bow low and touch the feet of elders and venerable persons. But Raju, after his release from the prison, and sitting lonely on the river steps, did not allow the villager, Velan to do so. To quote from the text: “Velan rose, bowed low, and tried to touch Raju’s feet. Raju recoiled at the attempt. ‘I’ll not permit anyone to do this. God alone is entitled to such a prostration. He will destroy us if we attempt to usurp His rights’” (Narayan16).
Rosie, though a post-graduate is never corrupted with modern and materialistic values. She is a traditional Indian wife, and she longs for affection and care from her husband. She cannot cope up with the archeological interests of her husband, Marco. Marco dislikes being disturbed by any one, even his wife, in his studies and professional activities. Rather he longs for appreciation of his achievements from his wife. This difference in wave-length is the cause of quarrel between Rosie and Marco.
When Marco deserted Rosie and took train to Madras, she came to Raju’s house for shelter. Seeing her coming to the house alone in the evening, Raju’s mother was wonderstruck. To quote from the text:
The very first question she asked was, ‘Who has come with you, Rosie?’ Rosie blushed, hesitated and looked at me. I moved a couple of steps backward in order that she might see me only dimly and not in all raggedness. I replied, ‘I think she has come alone, mother.’
My mother was amazed. ‘Girls today! How courageous you are! In our day we wouldn’t go to the street corner without an escort. And I have been to the market only once in my life, when Raju’s father was alive.’ (Narayan141)
The difference in attitude, as well as the temperament is seen here. Raju’s mother is a traditional Hindu woman who is denied public exposure. She is prohibited and hence afraid to go out alone, whereas Rosie is a modern woman. The western influence is evident in her attitude, behaviour and temperament. She is not all afraid to go out alone.
From the social point of view The Guide not only depicts Indian society, its customs, traditions, culture, ostentations, superstitions and religious faith, but also presents a conflict between the traditional and modern values which are symbolised by Raju’s mother and his maternal uncle on the one hand and by Raju and Rosie on the other. In such conflict old values have to give place to new values and thus Raju’s mother leaves her home for Raju and Rosie. “The novel also presents a conflict between the Eastern and Western culture and synthesises the two through their assimilation which has been symbolised by Rosie’s transformation in to Nalini. Like Anand, Narayan points out that one has to go to the West in order to come back to the East” (Yadav 28).
When Raju dissociates himself from society and goes after Rosie, he has moral degradation and he faces unpleasant repercussions. But when he returns to society as a swami he achieves redemption. In the words of Arun Soule, “Thus, it is seen that in the Western context, the individual can grow and develop, if he dissociates himself from society and becomes individualistic: whereas in the Indian context if an individual dissociates himself from society, he comes to grief, but if he takes society along with him, then he will be at peace with himself and his surroundings, and will be able to grow and develop” (33).
R. K. Narayan portrays a South-Indian conservative society in the village, Mangal. Though the contact of Western culture brought many changes in the village, castes and traditional occupations continue to exist. Marriages are still arranged. Astrology is accepted there. Washing the feet before visiting a temple or a saint as a ritual of purification, pulling the temple chariot along the streets on festive days, smearing holy ash on the forehead, reciting all kinds of sacred verse, consulting an astrologer for auspicious or sacred time, lighting the lamp in the god’s niche, reading the Bhagavadgita are some of the minor rituals appearing in the novel. Touching the feet of the saint, making offerings in kind or prostrating before god, are other ritualistic forms. Raju’s fasting to appease the rain gods and bring rain to save the people is the most significant ritual in the novel. The people of the village had a clear idea of the fasting ritual and it is reflected through Velan’s words. “Velan gave a very clear account of what the saviour was expected to do—stand in knee-deep water, look to the skies, and utter the prayer line for two weeks completely fasting during the period—and lo, the rains would come down, provided the man who performed it was a pure soul, was a great soul” (Narayan 109). Referring to the fasting ritual by Raju to appease rain-god, Narayan writes: “He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through with the ordeal.” Ritual is depicted as an ordeal because this is forced on the reluctant Raju who has no faith in it. However, the drought and the plight of the villagers have a persuasive effect on him and so he prays to heaven to send down rain to save the villagers” (qtd. in Rani 67). Narayan does not glorify the superstitious rituals. Similarly he does not deny the existence of a strong strain of faith among the villagers in the native rituals.
Narayan’s novels were written in a bi-cultural perspective. The clash between the ancient Indian traditions and values on the one side and modern western values on the other side was visible in many novels. The three major characters in The Guide were concerned with the revival of indigenous Indian art forms. In the words of John Oliver Perry:
Marco, Rosie’s soon deceived husband, obsessively studies ancient cave art and thus loses his wife, but ultimately his work illuminates older culture for present audiences; Rosie betrays her husband in order to foster what she vaguely calls “cultural traditions” through her inbred, caste-decreed dancing profession, and she is quite successful aesthetically, personally and socially. Raju’s more irregular successes as a guide to local cultural sights and to Rosie-Nalini’s traditional dancing lead directly to his virtual apotheosis as god-man fasting to death to bring villagers’ desperately needed rains. (173-174)
Raju seemed to be the psychological projection of the typical individual in Indian social set up. In the social behavioural pattern, Raju was critical of the age-old institutional values, albeit he himself was deeply rooted in the family tradition. Rosie’s caste affiliation was attacked by the general people as ‘public woman’ but Raju negated the prevalent mode of thinking and asserted that Rosie’s caste was ‘the noblest caste on earth.’ To quote Gajendra Kumar from his essay “R. K. Narayan’s ‘The Guide’: The Vision of Indian Values,” “Time is changed and continuously changing. Now, there exists no caste, class or creed. Marco too demonstrates his modesty and embraces Rosie as his wife” (174).
Malgudi is a microcosm of India. Just as the British India sought the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the post-Gandhian Malgudi looked up to Raju as a saviour. As Gandhi fasted in matters of public interest or concern, Raju also fasted for the redemption of Malguid from drought. The Guide is a brilliant illustration of Narayan’s artistic talent in creating inner and outer landscapes balanced by a set of traditional values. There are four major symbols that constitute the basic structure of the novel. They are: the temple, the village, the town of Malgudi and the river Sarayu. To quote A. V. Krishna Rao:
The temple’s influence on the democratic consciousness is so profound and efficacious that it results in the ultimate transformation of Raju. It enables the establishment of the identity of the mask and the man. The second symbol of the village, Mangal as well as Malgudi, signifies native strength, continuity of tradition, the ecology of a whole race with its inescapable influence on the individual consciousness and elemental determinism of individual destiny. . . . Thirdly Malgudi is the symbol of modern India caught in the throes of change under the impact of western civilization. Its faith and resilience are effectively affirmative of the root of a changing tradition. . . . Lastly Narayan’s invention of Mempi Hills is paralleled in his creation of Sarayu River, thereby completing the image of a whole country as a structural symbol for the Universe itself. (170-171)
The coming of the Railway to Malgudi is symbolically the impact of the transformation of a simple, agricultural community to an urban society. The high values of life give way to the modern ways and their attendant evils. Raju who grew up in a decent home has now picked up terms of abuse from the Railway men, and his father’s words ‘Just my misfortune!’ sound ominous in the light of the impending disaster. “The Railway meant the undoing of Raju and his old mother—a small shop keeper’s son becomes a Railway guide who starts living by his wits and runs into Rosie and Marco, two tourists, gets emotionally entangled, neglects his old, honest means of making a living, and brings ruin upon himself as well as a married woman” (Narasimhaiah132).
In The Guide one finds a clash between castes, classes and their old values on the one hand and the weakening modern social and moral structure on the other. Marco only paid lip-service to a casteless, conventionless society that was slowly taking shape before him by advertising for a good-looking educated young lady regardless of caste. Old prejudices die hard and Marco for all his erudition looked upon dancing as just street acrobatics and he killed Rosie’s instinct for life and love of art by denying her both of them (Narasimhaiah132).
Narayan’s treatment of the English language in the novel is Indian in its restraint, particularly where sex is concerned. Sex, though pervasive in the novel, is implicit always. Even when Raju decides to enter Rosie’s room and stay alone with her for the night how characteristically Indian and different he is from his western counterpart! He ‘stepped in and locked the door on the world.’ “The only time it is explicit, the utmost he has permitted himself on such an occasion is: Marco, the kill-joy is walking towards the cave swinging his cane and hugging his portfolio and Raju snaps: “If he could show half the warmth of that hug elsewhere!”” (Narasimhaiah 144-145).
Narayan is acclaimed as a Regional or Social novelist. The locale of The Guide is the small town of Malgui where Raju has his home, the village Mangal from where Velan hails, and Madras (Chennai) and other big cities where Rosie is invited to dance. As most of the Indians live in rural and semi-urban areas, the locale of the novel is almost the microcosm of India. The world in The Guide is “structured along simple binaries—Malgudi and Mangal, the town and the village, urban sophistication versus rural simplicity, modernity versus tradition, cynicism versus faith” (Sen 86).
Raju’s father did not follow the traditional Brahmin occupation of priesthood. Thus it became ironic that Raju came back full circle to his caste occupation as a performer of sacred rites in a most ambiguous way. His father was a worldly man who took the full advantage of the colonial world trade and commerce. Perhaps his father’s worldliness might be the source of Raju’s worldliness. It was the railway which brought the outside world, with its modernity and hybridity to Malgudi. It bifurcated the world of Malgudi both literally and metaphorically. Western notions of individual choice and self-expression were thoroughly out of place among the people of Malgudi. The locale that opposed tradition were the westernized parts of the town where Raju and Rosie carried on their assignations—the cinema hall, the Taj restaurant, and the hotel. “This fast moving, individualistic, opportunistic world is as familiar to post-colonial India as the centuries-old traditions” (Sen 88). Paradoxically, it was that newly urbanized rich world of Malgudi, and not the traditional world that Raju’s mother and uncle inhabit, that fosterd the renaissance of art by encouraging Rosie to express herself as an artist and classical dancer. The same Rosie who was shunned as a devadasi by those who swore by their traditional norms (people like Raju’s mother and uncle), was reborn Nalini, the respected classical dancer, because of the emergence of and affluent and cosmopolitan class of people in Malgudi. Yet it was the villagers of Mangal who showed the quintessentially Indian emotional response—the spontaneous, implicit, unquestioning faith in a person perceived to be a holy man. The holy man or ascetic was an integral part of traditional Indian society. He was respected for representing the heritage of Indian values and wisdom, and it was not customary to question his authority. “Orthodox Hindus believe that there is no spiritual salvation without a guru, and the guru-shishya relationship is considered to be one of the closest and most sacred ties in Indian society” (Sen 92).
In the novel The Guide, Narayan seemed to be particularly fascinated by the ubiquitous presence of swamis and saints, gurus and guides, charlatans and philistines, cobras and concubines in India’s colourful society. With his characteristic humour he was able to capture the spectrum of Indian life, with its superstitions and hypocrisies, its beliefs and follies, its intricacies and vitalities, its rigidities and flexibilities. The action of the novel proceeded in two distinct streams, presenting two different aspects of Indian culture. Malgudi, a miniature of India, presented the rich traditions of classical dances by Rosie-Nalini and the breath-taking paintings that embellish Marco’s The Cultural History of South India. Mangal, the neighbour town village presented the spiritual dimension of Indian culture, presented through Raju’s growth into a celebrated Swami. “Thus Raju, Rosie and Marco become temporal symbols of India’s cultural ethos” (Goyal 143). While Marco’s aspiration sought their fulfilment in unearthing the buried treasures of India’s rich cultural past, Rosie’s longing sought satisfaction in the creative channels of classical dancing in the midst of an ever-present, live audience. Raju was all the time dreaming of an elusive future till a time came when he was irrevocably committed to a definite future by undertaking a fast in the hope of appeasing the rain-god. “While Marco is cultural historian of the past, Rosie is a cultural ambassador of the present, and Raju is a cultural prophet of the future” (Goyal 143).
Many of the structural devices and thematic concerns of the Hindu epics and puranas are displayed in The Guide. In having a rogue as the hero, there is an element of the folk tale also. Krishna Sen is of opinion that
we have the idyllic opening scene, the dramatic dialogue format, the layered narrative, the multilateral structure compressing time shifts and interwoven digressions, and the final penance for a divine boon to save humanity. Some elements have been parodied or ironically subverted by bringing them from the mythic past to the imperfect present, elements such as the guru being superior to the shishya, or the dialogue leading spiritual illumination. (22)
Another indigenous pattern working through the novel is the linear progression or varnasrama, or the Hindu belief in the four stages of the ideal life—student, house holder, recluse and ascetic (brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sansyasa). This pattern, too, is parodied. Raju is successively a ‘student’ preparing for life in the platform vendor and Railway Raju phases, a ‘house holder’ and man of affairs in his illegal union with Rosie and as her corrupt business manager, a ‘recluse’ during his days in prison, and an ‘ascetic’ in his role as the fake guru. Raju’s fasting for the rain, the denouement in the novel, is a travesty, reminiscent of the story of the sage-king Bhagirath who conducted severe penance to bring down the goddess Ganga. This story is found in both the Ramayana and the Mahapurana (Sen 24). The entire ritual by Raju may or may not have brought rain, but it did help bring peace to the strife-torn Mangal and turn the community back to religion. Thus The Guide can be triumphantly called a Hindu novel. “The denouement is neither a rejection nor a defense of the Hindu faith—it gestures towards the complexity of life, in which there are no simple solutions. It is this ambiguous and open-ended denouement that raises the novel far above the level of a mere moral fable, or a story with a simplistic happy ending” (Sen 25).
Socially the novel brought out the transition in India from an old-fashioned way of life to a modern and urbanized one, and the character groupings roughly corresponded to these two areas. Raju’s parents and uncle, and the old pyol school master represented tradition, orthodoxy, hierarchy and conservative values. The peripheral character who was crucial to the progress of the plot was Velan. His personality was not drawn in detail, nor was it required. Velan would not be a credible character in a western setting. Velan was the sole person responsible for the final plight of Raju. But Velan’s contribution was not merely to oppress Raju. It was he who built Raju up into a ‘saint,’ and it was Velan’s unshakable faith that finally enabled Raju to rise above himself. “Velan is a catalyst for Raju’s apotheosis” (Sen 71)
The characters in The Guide can be reduced to symbolic meanings. Velan represents the psychological reality of the rural ethos. He is the spiritual guide of Raju, the professional guide. Raju remains professional even in his mask. Raju, Velan and Rosie are the central characters in the novel. In the words of U. P. Sinha from his essay, “Patterns of Myth and Reality in “The Guide”: Complex Craft of Fiction”:
Their implicative or metaphoric roles in the novel make a mythic triangle which is a triangle with three points, one indicating the height of spiritual-cum-moral triumph. The point indicating the low, the deep is represented by Rosie, and the vertical one is represented by Velan. The third point at the level, which seems to be vertical but is not obviously so, represents Raju. The first two points act upon this one so that the whole triangle becomes mythical—man facing two opposite-worlds; facing always with very little chance of a smooth and painless arrival here or there. (80)
One can interpret the character portrayal in the novel in terms of gunas. In the words of Rama Nair, “Gunas can presuppose the question of basic predisposition called Samskaras and fate (Karma). . . . In Hindu thought, a mental or physical act is called Karma. Karma is the sum-total of a man’s past actions, in the present and the previous lives, which determines his life now. One can achieve liberation only through spiritual self-realization” (44). In Hindu philosophy names of individuals do not matter. One’s individuality and character are determined by his actions. The names of central characters in The Guide are not individualistic. They are vague and impersonal. The reader is never told either Raju’s or Marco’s real name. Raju’s spiritual triumph at the end of the novel is a reaffirmation of the satwic potential that is innate in every individual. The same critical frame work can be applied to Rosie’s character also.
The Guide ended in a way which is very typical of an Indian story. In a typical Indian story, the main character narrated his own story to an acquaintance overnight and by the time he concluded, the cock crowed. In this traditional way of story-telling, the story-teller, Raju, held the listener. Thus Narayan achieved a supreme triumph through this narration. To quote C. D. Narasimhaiah from his essay, “R. K. Narayan’s ‘The Guide,’” “It is not surprising when we know that at all times Narayan writes not merely with an intense social awareness of his own age but with the past of India in his bones. Thanks to him our social sympathies are broadened and our moral being considerably heightened” (198).
When one comes to the end of the novel he is threatened with so many unanswered questions. Is Raju a real saint or is he a fake? This question had puzzled most readers of the novel ever since its publication. Sally Appleton in the review titled “The Ambiguous Man,” which appeared in Commonweal Magazine, a few weeks after the novel’s publication, observes: “The author must decide whether or not holiness will work . . . the author abandons the reader to choose arbitrarily whether or not, as Raju sinks into the muddy river bed, he is dying, whether or not, as the water rises to Raju’s knees, it rises because “it’s raining in the hills” or because Raju himself is sagging into it (cited in Pontes and Ezekiel 92)” (qtd. in Paranjape 176). It is not surprising that critics are divided on this question. C. D. Narasimhaiah considers Raju a transformed man in the end, a saint, whereas G. S. Balarama Gupta believes that Raju is a selfish swindler, an adroit actor, and a perfidious megalomaniac (Paranjape 177). In the words of Paranjape:
The question is not so much whether Raju is a willing saint or not because, like all of us, every one within the novel notices Raju’s reluctance, even his unfitness for gurudom. But does that really change who or what he ends up becoming? So what we have here is a real problem, one that leads us to the crux of Narayan’s artistry and to his relationship to Indian modernity. Because if Raju is a fake, Narayan is putting into doubt not just an individual but the institution of guru itself.” (177)
It was the belief of village people of Mangal that it would rain and thus put an end to the drought if a true sanyasi did genuine fasting for twelve days. That was a belief prevalent among the Hindus as such in India. Whether the people had direct experience of the miracle or not, it did not lessen their faith in it. Narayan only wanted to portray that such beliefs and rites prevailed among his people. He did not want to glorify or condemn such beliefs. There is no clear hint at the end of the novel whether it rained. Rather one has to doubt it based on the description of the topography. The narration of the last paragraph of novel is as follows:
. . . He got up feet. He had to be held by Velan and another on each side. In the profoundest silence the crowd followed at a solemn, silent pace. The eastern sky was red. Many in the camp were still sleeping. Raju could not walk, but, he insisted upon pulling himself along the same. He panted with the effort. He went down the steps of the river, halting for breath on each step, and finally reached the basin of water. He stepped into it, shut his eyes, and turned towards the mountain, his lips muttering the prayer. Valan and another held him each by an arm. The morning Sun was out now; a great shaft of light illuminated the surroundings. It was difficult to hold Raju on his feet, as he had a tendency to flop down. They held him as if he were a baby. Raju opened his eyes, looked about, and said, ‘Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs.’ He sagged down. (Narayan 247)
The description of the eastern sky as red and the apparition of the morning sun and the great shaft of light which illuminated the surroundings do not match with raining in the hills. The readers come across a series of endless questions. Does it really rain? Does Raju survive to see the miracle? Or does he die with the delusion that his sacrifice has paid off? The readers have to find out their own answers based on their beliefs and philosophy. In the words of Paranjape, “Are we people of faith, those who believe that the sacrifice of a well-intentioned individual can solve social problems, even change the course of natural events? Or are we modern, “scientific” people who refuse to yield to such superstitions? To frame the choices offered by the novel in an even more complex manner, do we want to believe even though we might be unable to?” (180)
Though Raju was a fake guru, on whom gurudom had been thrust, he seemed to grow in stature to fit its mantle. He was willing to sacrifice his life. Since the villagers believed that his fasting would bring rain he had no other alternative than continuing the fast to the twelfth day. Raju understood that he could not correct the villagers’ misconception about him. They considered him as a true sanyasi and hence his genuine fast would bring rain. Thus Raju was trapped. He had no existence other than a sanyasi’s. He could have saved himself as the doctors and Velan requested him to stop fasting. But once he stopped fasting what would the hundreds of people assembled there think about him? Wouldn’t it be a betrayal of faith laid on him by the people? So he might have thought that it was better and nobler to die a martyr than live an ignoble life, despised by others. Narayan wanted to tell the readers that there are many Rajus or fake sanyasis in our society. Despite being so aware of the dangers of shamming such a serious thing as being a guru, Narayan actually came out in favour of the institution in the end. He was unable to show the villagers rejecting Raju, or Velan abusing and unmasking him. He did not want the novel to be a propaganda tract against superstitious villagers and unscrupulous charlatans. “The Guide is far from being an expose of phony godmen exploiting the gullible masses. Narayan cannot make a pitch in favour of machinization or development as the cure of all its, including drought” (Paranjape 181).
Narayan did not endorse tradition in a loud or sententious manner. He did not reject or condemn it but rather created a space for that. He pointed out that in the struggle between tradition and modernity, tradition won though in a reluctant manner. Raju’s penance and his ultimate sacrifice were real no matter how painfully flawed his motives might have been earlier or how ineffectual their outcome. There was ample textual evidence to suggest that a gradual but sure alteration in Raju’s inner being did take place. “In other words, the irony strengthens the “Hindu” world view, not weakens it, though at first it appears as if the opposite is the case” (Paranjape 182).
The Guide could be read as a “complex allegory satirising the process by which gods and demi-gods came to be established within the religion, wherein through the centuries myths and stories came to be built around a man until he gradually attained the stature of a god and joined the ranks of celestial beings as a divine incarnation” (Sankaran 129). In this view The Guide would be a satire, albeit a gentle one, about the system of worship within Hinduism. Raju was in a sense, the distillation of a type of character that had existed in Hindu mythology for nearly five centuries—‘the trickster sage.’ In Hindu mythology the sages and even the gods were shown to be fallible, and no one was considered perfect or lying so low as to be incapable of reaching great spiritual heights. Similarly in Hindu mythology transformation could occur to a person due to an out side agency without the volition of the person. “Raju would, in this light, be eminent ‘sage’ material” (Sankaran 135).
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