Somerset Maugham happened to read the novel and was interested to meet Narayan when he visited South India. Unfortunately Narayan was still an unknown name so didn’t quite make the connect and their paths didn’t cross.
Set in Malgudi, the novel is grim and full of foreboding sense of doom. In the tale Narayan focuses on aspects of traditional Indian marriages that are a cause of grief instead of celebration. The Dark Room narrates the sad but futile struggles of Savitri who justifiably fights with her philandering husband but ends up losing the war.
Narayan is known for his sense of humour. We are introduced to the family of Ramani, Savitri and their three kids. There are the usual tiffs and fights to begin with but nothing seems to be seriously amiss – it sounds just like a typical middle class South Indian home where Ramani holds the upper hand. Savitri, as the heroine from popular folklore, is a traditional housewife. She is docile and readily submits to her husband’s wishes. She is a victim of a patriarchal set up as she never got the opportunity to pursue her education and be an independent person. She is perpetually trying to navigate her world by buying peace with her husband who till then troubles her with minor quirks and foibles.
She has an ultimate weapon to let her family know about her displeasure – she would retreat to ‘the dark room’ and withdraw herself from the family affairs for a brief period. Unfortunately things take a turn for the worse when Ramani abuses her relationship and has an affair with a lady intern at his office. Savitri is not able to turn a blind eye to the episode – she initially makes a futile attempt as she knows her husband will not mend his ways.
The fight turns nasty and she is forced to leave her home, husband and children. If this seems incredible, well the story is set in the early 50s and in a rather orthodox society. One needs to understand that the prevalent social realities didn’t provide ready remedies for women caught in such sordid situations. She is distraught and decides to drown herself. She is rescued and still sees no real purpose for living. She gets convinced to serve in a local Temple and encounters further trouble with the people who come her way including the Priest who manages the Temple.
She is not able to bear the grief particularly of being separated from her children. She decides to beat a retreat and returns home. Ramani’s attitude shows no improvement and indeed he doesn’t have many questions about her ordeal. Nor does he show any sensitivity towards her – for him it re-establishes his unquestioned authority at home. She can like it or lump it.
Narayan’s novels are about ordinary lives and their trials and tribulations. They are always peppered with a sense of sympathy and tolerance as idiosyncrasies abound and there are usually imperfect remedies available for all that ails mankind. Add to it the small town locale of Malgudi and some humour, so the reader is kept in good humour.
In ‘The Dark Room’ the tone departs from the usual and indeed it explores the dark side of marriage in a traditional and patriarchal society. Narayan chooses to provide us no outlets for escape – in some of his novels the wife would be able to even dominate the husband who would be a mild-mannered fellow, in others the elders in the family would be able to intervene and redress any excesses, else the family life would recede into the background – indeed I remember a novel where the wife’s name is not even mentioned though she features through the full length of the narrative.
Herein Narayan wants to show us the mirror – with warts and all being in full display. Indeed it would be foolish to deny the harsh reality that many marriages in the past were ill-matched and caused lot of grief and hardship particularly to the fairer sex.