Review of ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ by R K Narayan

One of Narayan’s earlier books still set in the mystical South Indian town of Malgudi, the novel is mostly a breezy affair though it should appear to be bizarre to the modern readers. Graham Greene’s introduction is charming enough though he seems to get his facts wrong when he alludes to a dubious ,even dishonest, horoscope entering the ‘marriage-making’ scene.

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Image Courtesy – Wikipedia

Yet we enjoy Narayan’s narrative – his easy manner of telling a tale of small men with smaller schemes and dreams that often become undone for a variety of reasons. He humours us just like his characters by presenting us the foibles of the human heart with just a touch of disdain and a bigger dose of sympathy.

Imagine falling in love at first sight with a shadowy image of a girl in Green Sari by the river in the gloaming light. Fine that is not so very unusual – but in the ordinary narrative would you be drawn to do the following ? Pursue the marriage proposal, get dejected enough to walk out of your home on learning it is not ‘destined-to-be’ and become an ascetic (Sanyasi). Give that up again in 8 months time to return to your family and easily reconcile to marrying another girl – rationalizing your choice and coming to think in terms of the first girl being like a sister.

That Narayan could get away with this is surely an indication of the times and the social mores prevalent in the 1930s. But it seems credible enough as the portrait is faithfully drawn of Chandran, barely out of college and into adulthood who seems to make absurd choices in matters that require a deeper deliberation and strategy.

Chandran’s college escapades are richly drawn as we trace the last six months of his life a student of BA (History) in a small town college. The debate on, ‘Historians should be slaughtered first’ is good fun. The happenings have a real feel to them and one cannot but wonder that Narayan has been a bit autobiographical in drawing this piece.

In a quick leap the narrative moves to the prime theme of Chandran instantly falling in love with a nameless girl whom he has not met or even exchanged a word with. If this were not to be thought of as infatuation, one would wonder the limits of romance that must have existed even in those conservative days.

Chandran’s antics in trying to negotiate and short-circuit the traditional marriage process in the upper class Brahminical world is an amazing farce. Horoscope matching, dowry, elaborate protocols on negotiating the alliance, the groom’s family having an upper hand over the girl’s family ab initio,  girls having to marry before they turn 16 is surely an anathema in today’s digital world. We are drawn to laugh and sympathize when he proposes unconventional overtures – nonetheless we must not fail to recognize that the writer dismisses this as ramblings of the younger lot that must not detract from the established protocols which are aimed at preventing mis-alliances. To some extent we have had western writers poke similar fun of the Victorian tradition of match-making as well.

Unfortunately things don’t work out and Chandran is heart-broken. He immediately escapes to Madras and there is a nice cameo with Kailas that comes to a rather abrupt end. There were potentialities there that a more seasoned ‘Narayan’ would have surely explored. Chandran’s random turn overnight to become an ascetic seems misguided and unconvincing. And just when one is getting reconciled to it and expecting bigger adventures from the episode, he does yet another somersault and returns to home as if nothing had happened.

He seems to have grown wiser when he undertakes to a ‘Newspaper Agent’ and fully embroiled in the commercial world. Yet another marriage proposal, drafted and solemnized in a rather hasty manner is yet another leap in the story.In some ways even the writer mocks the confusion – well it is a girl in Blue Sari this time instead of a Green one. It is quite gaping that the girl’s views don’t even enter in the realm of schemes while these activities are underway.

And Chandran’s attempts to rationalize his choice jars a bit, but possibly it is not so unrealistic in the turbulent world of a young adult who is yet to come to terms with his new world and his own culture. A reason for the dilemma could be in the traditional narrative of Indian rituals and customs at home that duels in stark contrast with the modern narrative of western world of history and philosophy at the college.

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