Weak as water and a waffling runt, Nataraj is indeed a character that should excite our contempt. Instead Narayan weaves an incredible tale about his antics that leave us ambivalent as we alternately battle being amused or vexed at his antics.
Nataraj could have had an extremely prosperous printing business if only he were to focus on his own affairs and deal with people using a firm hand as are the ways of the world. He refuses to do either and so we hear about his sufferings at the hand of the tough cookie Vasu, the taxidermist. There is no real man-eater of significance in the tale – instead it is just an allusion for Vasu’s ferocity that spares nobody be it the wild animals or the hapless people he encounters.
We are back in the familiar world of Malgudi wherein a mixture of comical and bizarre events unfold. Nataraj, the printer, is a classic example of such mindless capers. He seems to be well-connected in the town and has enough work to keep himself occupied. Nonetheless he chooses to focus on everything except minding his own business. He is easily drawn into the affairs of his acquaintances and enthusiastically tries his amateur hand at fixing their troubles.
During one such streak of benevolence he accepts Vasu as a friend and permits him to occupy the attic above his printing press. But Vasu simply turns his world upside down. Vasu is a real character for a change who enjoys a fight. A qualified taxidermist, he is soon busy chasing game at the nearby Mempi hills. Soon enough the attic is filled with stuffed animals and Nataraj is horrified at having let him occupy his premises. Vasu is not easily got rid off and even chases Nataraj with the vicious ‘Rent Control Act’ law. Nataraj is frustrated but also scared of confronting Vasu. He ends up making propitiatory gestures to him and earns Vasu’s scorn in the process.
Nataraj finds time to preoccupy himself with some more affairs that include taking care of an ailing Temple Elephant, printing the poetic works of his friend and organizing a temple festival wherein the poetic verse dealing with the ‘Krishna-Radha’ story would be dedicated to the Almighty. The plot takes bizarre twists and turns as Vasu schemes to kill the Elephant when the Temple procession is underway. A surprisingly tame dénouement finally happens to bring a curtain on the tale but by then we have been entertained enough by Narayan.
Narayan excels in his characterization of the key actors and the portrayal of the interpersonal dynamics among them. So we know instantly that Nataraj is a good-hearted wimp who can never get the better of a bully like Vasu. But often one heart yearns to see the underdog win an impossible battle, so we amusedly wait and watch as to how the tale would conclude. Here again Narayan employs some creativity and provides us with a satisfactory twist in the tale.
The trademark signs of a tale from Malgudi abound – there is no end to characters who are idle and pursue trivial affairs, Nataraj is a natural act as a version of the Talkative Man and the local gossip, other marginal characters appear to play the part and take the story forward. Narayan excels, as usual, in inveigling us into the affairs of small people with small dreams.