A few thoughts on R K Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma
A K Ramanujan said somewhere that no Indian hears the Ramayana for the first time. It seeps into everyone from the environment, bits and pieces are always known, and so on. He would probably have said the same for R K Narayan - no Indian of today has not heard of RKN, or is not familiar with at least some of his work. The Malgudi Days TV serial title tune is a ringtone now, the old episodes keep showing up on repeat somewhere, Swami and Friends is a rite of growing up, and so on.
Which may or may not be the right kind of justice for the writer. After all, he isn’t a childrens’ writer, nor one who peddled nostalgia. He wrote a true picture of India at the time, the 40s through the 70s, and his work was respected by serious readers. Associating him with our own childhood memories is a side effect.
This was what made me keen on reading Waiting for the Mahatma - although it was set in the town of Malgudi, it dealt with a more mature theme, talked of history and more tumultuous times, and was unlikely to feature any cute children.
All of those expectations it satisfied. WftM is the story of Shriram, a young man who lives an uneventful, closeted, life with his grandmother in a bylane of Malgudi. His life is upturned one day when he meets a young girl, Bharati, who is collecting funds for Gandhiji’s movement, in preparation for the great man’s arrival in Malgudi. Bharati is an orphan, attached to Gandhiji’s camp forever. Smitten by the girl, Shriram joins up the freedom struggle as another foot soldier. He meets the Mahatma several times, in fact is in communication with him through most of the book. The story covers the 40s, so it walks us through the common man’s experience of the freedom struggle - a very different experience from what our bombastic official accounts tell us.
The biggest surprise for me was that Narayan treats Gandhi and his movement unironically (mostly), yes, there are sly digs at how the common man interprets the movement, and the fact that Gandhiji is fine with the superhuman image of his. But still - he’s a real person here, and his word matters a great deal to Shriram and Bharati. As you read, you realize how far we’ve come from the days when Gandhiji was taken seriously - nowadays he’s an icon, on a pedestal, to be revered as a god but not to be understood.
Unexpectedly, the book did make me nostalgic - for the time when Narayan’s fluid, rooted writing was more popular and it was okay to write about small towns as simple innocent places. Ever since Arundhati Roy, Indian villages are regressive, casteist, and whatnot. Maybe either extreme is wrong - but it’s to be noted that Narayan’s village/small town are not exactly utopian - people die in them, get ostracized, go to jail, starve, all of that. But he still makes you feel like he loves them and their people - and this is what shines through in his work.
Yes, I’ll probably be reading more of his books. Maybe not Swami and Friends, though. Or maybe I will. For old times’ sake.