11 July 2007

The Bachelor of Arts

Author: R K Narayan
Pages: 166
First Edition: 1965
Genre: Fiction

Lessons of life

Among R K Narayan’s most popular books are Swami And Friends and The Guide, of which the latter saw a grand, cinematic interpretation in the classic Dev Anand-Waheeda Rahman film.
While there’s no doubting the genius of the above two works, it needs to be said that even some of R K Narayan’s lesser-known works are little gems that just cannot be missed.
Personally, I have a great fondness for this novel, which not only makes for riveting reading but also mirrors the post-independence mood in Southern India wonderfully.
The Bachelor Of Arts is the second part of the trilogy of novels that R K Narayan wrote, along with Swami And Friends and The English Teacher. Yet, the novel stands perfectly well on its own, without any references needed. It would be useful, however, to know that these three novels are R. K Narayan’s most personal works, derived heavily from his own life. After capturing some unforgettable childhood images in Swami And Friends, The Bachelor Of Arts sees him as a youth, a collegian (Chandran) in the 1930s. Understandably, it’s a time when the effects of colonialism ,with its accompanying modernity are seeping into the sleepy, insular world of Malgudi.
Chandran is a bright, young boy, who has grown up in the comforts of a warm, traditional Tamilian family. Since this is a very secure word, with humble aspirations, it’s a culture that lays great emphasis on following the beaten path and generally tends to frown upon any sort of wayward activity.

Chandran symbolizes the new generation of the time, who with their growing consciousness, have started to feel disenchanted by the smallness of their world and want to break free. This feeling rises in him when he goes through a severe heart-break.
Chandran falls for a girl whom he sees at the bank of a river and desires to marry. However, the horoscopes don’t match and the girl’s parents politely decline the offer. The fact that he can do nothing about the situation and has to quietly submit before traditions, fills his heart with bitterness and confusion. Interestingly, R K Narayan met his wife Rajam in a similar fashion and the same horescope issue had cropped up in his case as well. He, however, went ahead with the marriage and the couple spend some very wonderful years of domestic bliss. But tragedy did strike, and Rajam died of typhoid making the author distraught. Narayan’s third book, The English Teacher, captures this part of his life and the deep sorrow he experienced quite vividly.

Chandran’s rebellious spirit takes over and he feels determined to unleash revenge on the world that deprived him of what he wanted so badly. He quits Malgudi and starts staying in a hotel. Then, shaves off his head and starts living like a sanyasi begging for alms.
However, over time he realizes the futility of this exercise and returns back to his own little world. He takes up a challenging job as a publishing agent and agrees to marry again, much to his parents delight.

In Chandran’s process of self-exploration, challenge and reconciliation, R K Narayan makes a broader statement about the spirit of adventurism that grips us but most of us quickly realise the smallness of our horizons and quietly slip into a world of 'quiet and sobriety'
The best recourse here, as suggested by Narayan, is to manipulate one’s own space in a familiar world -much like what Chandran does. This theme, in many ways, mirrors Narayan’s own struggle with the rigidity and practices of his society. However, none of that took him out of Malgudi, did it?

-Sandhya Iyer

9 comments:

Qalandar said...

I love this book...and I can read anything by Narayan with great pleasure...

another fine review sandy...

Qalandar said...

btw, i only discovered the bookslut.com site through your blog -- that's a damn good site...

sandy said...

I'm a big Narayan fan too...I too can pretty much read anything by him. I liked the first part of The English Teacher very much but the second half turned out to be a disaster.

Qalandar said...

In fact I must say that when I read the book years after first seeing Guide, I realized that had I seen the movie after reading the book, I would have been quite disappointed...

sandy said...

Q: For a long time, I didn't even like Guide-the film.

Anyway, coming to Bachelor Of Arts, I don't know if you remember that there's an introduction by Graham Green (author and Narayan's mentor) in the novel and I particularly like the below passage by him. It refers to how Narayan changed as a writer after the death of his wife, Rajam and then again wonders if it was all part of a writer's destiny.


"Something had permanently changed in Narayan after The Bachelor Of Arts, the writer's personal tragedy has been our gain. Sadness and humour in the later books go hand in hand like twins, inseparable, as they do in the stories of Chekhov. Perhaps if we had read more closely we should have seen that the shadow had been there from the beginning. A writer in some strange way knows his future ---his end is in his beginning, as it is in the pages of a horoscope, and the schoolboy Swami, watching the friend with whom he had needlesly quarelled, vanish into the vast unknown spaces of India, had already experienced a little of what Krishna (in The English Teacher) came to feel as he watched his beloved wife die of typhoid."

Qalandar said...

I did remember that Greene had an intro, but did not recall that passage -- it is beautiful and insightful, and somehow moving...

日月神教-任我行 said...
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Love SMS said...

The way with which R K Narayan makes us see through a 10 year old's eyes deserves appreciation. This is one of those books where you can relate to with.
The characters are etched deep into our hearts. When Rajam bids adieu, you feel a lump in your throat. You never mind reading it again and again to get into the world of swami.
The best children's book I have ever read, and the only book which has made me laugh so much.
P.S- If you are a Tamilian, read the book for sure, you can enjoy it even more.

Rahul said...

You can not deny that R. K. Narayanan is # 1 author when it comes to short stories and books with high social and moral values.This book is no exception.The story is great and flows smoothly.The author takes to pre independence time to children from different family background and the bond between childhood friends.This book is a great read.(y)