Chandran’s Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood as depicted in R.K. Narayan’s, the Bachelor of Arts

They have in common growing up for their main theme. Swami, the protagonist in Swami and Friends grows from boyhood towards early adolescence and Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts, who sometimes looks like a grown-up version of the boy Swami, grows from early youth to adulthood. In either case, the protagonist goes through an emotional crisis involving his relations with some people. This makes the growth possible in him.

The family provides the immediate context and background for the two heroes. The novelist presents them amidst a network of close familial relationships. They have a strong sense of kinship which binds to their families. Thus they are not only rooted firmly in their respective families, but are seen growing up and becoming stable within their fold. Further, when they are jolted out of their sheltered existence by certain unexpected crises in their lives, it is their good fortune that they are able to return to the security of the care and affection of their parents who understand them with extreme sympathy. Thus the family theme is a secondary but significant theme in both the novels.

The Bachelor of Arts presents a few phases in the life of Chandran an undergraduate student of the Albert Mission College of Malgudi, who eventually becomes a Bachelor of Arts:

If Swami and Friends depicts the carefree buoyant world of a school boy, The Bachelor of Arts presents a few phases in the life of Chandran an undergraduate student of the Albert Mission College of Malgudi, who eventually becomes a Bachelor of Arts. It is mainly concerned with the emotional ups and downs of his life until he settles down as a married man. In some ways Chandran would appear to be young Swami grown up.

He seems to begin where the other leaves off. Like Swami, he too has to go through certain deflating experiences before he achieves a measure of emotional maturity and stability. Chandran has to cross “the shadow-line between carefree youth and responsible manhood.” In this process, his parents also play a significant role. Thus the theme of growing up is taken a stage further in The Bachelor of Arts. But the family is still a secondary theme in this novel, the focus being on Chandran’s growth.

R.K. Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts makes a subtle psychological study of the theme of growing up of its protagonist Chandran from adolescence to adulthood:

R.K. Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts makes a subtle psychological study of the theme of growing up of its protagonist Chandran from adolescence to adulthood. The novel is not just the story of an Indian college student who gets his graduation, falls in love and receives a disappointment. It is also not just the story of someone who becomes a sanyasi and learns to live a life freed from illusions, returns from sanyas and gets married to a beautiful girl (Susila) chosen for this purpose by his parents. The novel is all this and something more.

In addition to the chain of events that make up the mosaic called life, it is also a record of Chandran’s attempt to come on to his own and to carve a place for himself in the exciting world of adults. The B.A. degree becomes the launching point for this sensitive, young adolescent’s flight into adulthood though the strings of revolt can be seen as early on the night of the debate.

Chandran comes out victorious in the college Union Debate in spite of the fact that late night shows always upset his father:

We do not know what kind of a person Chandran is nor how he strikes us when the book opens or what he looks like physically. There is just one brief reference to his brown complexion and that is all. However, there is much that we learn of Chandran as a person both from the narrative and from the incidents presented in the book.

Even in Chapter 1, we know that he is a college student, not very bright, studying History for his graduation, good at debating, in turns cynical, indifferent, warm or arrogant with his friends, yet often preoccupied with the effect that he makes on others. For example, when the book begins, he has just been asked by Natesan, the College Union Secretary to open the debate on “Should Historians Be Slaughtered?”

But the subject goes against his grain because he himself is a student of history. Yet he makes an effort and rises up to the occasion. The House votes, by an overwhelming majority, to annihilate the historians. Chandran feels victorious and with genuine pride, so common in the young, he “dramatically stretched his arm across the table and shook hands with the Prime Opposer.”

Chandran decides to go to a late-night film with Ramu in spite of the fact that late night shows always upset his father:

Riding on the waves of a new confidence, he fixes up a late night film show with Ramu his close friend. He does this in spite of the fact that late night shows always upset his father. But as he reaches home, his confidence vanishes and he again becomes a child afraid of his father. He opens the gate, slips in noiselessly hoping to sneak past his father so as not to incur his displeasure. But suddenly something dramatic happens within him.

He has “a surge of self-respect” and the adult within him chides him for being a child. So “Chandran swaggered along the drive with an independent air, but within he had a feeling that he should have chosen some other day for demonstrating his independence.” This rather credible account of calculated defiance coloured by a natural hesitation and fear that usually accompanies such first acts of defiance marks the starting point of Chandran’s break from parental authority and gives expression to his desire to “grow”.

Chandran’s life to date has been a protected one:

Chandran’s life to date has been protected one and even tonight, on the night of the debate, though his father does not forbid him from going to the film, he does not refrain from remarking, “H’m but I wouldn’t advise you to make it a habit. Late shows are very bad for health.”

Similarly Chandran’s mother who comes out of the prayer room only to be told by the cook that he has not eaten properly chides Chandran in the true fashion of the over-protective Indian mother: “I had the potato sauce prepared specially for you, and you have eaten only curd and rice. Fine boy!” In answer Chandran only borrows a rupee from her (this again is typical of the Indian parent-child relationship) and walks down to the cinema with Ramu.

Like all human beings Chandran seeks emotional sustenance not only within his family but also outside amongst people of his own age:

Cinema watching for Chandran, as Narayan tells us, was no ordinary matter. It was an “aesthetic experience” from which the maximum delight had to be drawn and therefore it was necessary to accompany it with betel chewing and cigarette smoking. At such times Chandran also felt that “Ramu’s company was most important to him.

It was his presence that gave a sense of completion to things. He too smoked, chewed, drank coffee, laughed (he was the greatest laugher in the world), admired Chandran, ragged him, quarrelled with him,” and this made Ramu’s company invaluable to him. Like all human beings Chandran seeks emotional sustenance not only within his family but also outside amongst people of his own age. The presence of Ramu is reassuring to Chandran.

The other important factor of friendship is that they share interests and this adds to Chandran’s confidence. The quality of shared interests is absent in Chandran’s other peer group relationships such as with Natesan, Mohan and Veeraswami.

Chandran’s desire to assert himself and establish an Adult-Adult relationship is revealed in the incident involving his college teacher Mr. Gajapathi:

The newly-discovered desire to assert himself and establish an Adult- Adult relationship with people does not die out after its first upsurge. On the other hand, it repeats itself and gets reinforced in incidents involving Chandran with his college teachers, Mr. Gajapathi and Prof. Ragavachar. The first of these incidents involves Mr. Gajapthi, in whose class one day, Chandran felt so bored that he “screwed the cap of his pen and sat back”. Gajapathi notices what he has done and orders him to keep writing on. Chandran obeys him apparently but in reality goes on scribbling and drawing.

With a teacher’s instinct, Gajapathi suspects that Chandran has not been taking notes and decides to trip him up on that after class. He asks Chandran to show him his book. Chandran is nonplussed because he has not been taking down notes. For a minute he debates if he ought to tell a lie and get away with it.

However, he decides against it and curtly tells Gajapathi to leave him alone: “Honestly I have not taken down anything, sir. If you will excuse me, I must go now. I have to see Professor Ragavachar.” And in this act of his, he successfully breaks down another of those imaginary barriers of awe and fear with which every child regards the six foot adult.

Chandran’s desire to assert himself and establish an Adult-Adult relationship is revealed in the incident involving his History Professor Ragavachar:

The other incident involves Prof. Ragavachar, his History Professor who is known to be very strict. Prof, Ragavachar sends for Chandran who does not know why the former wants to see him. Though this incident follows the one with Gajapathi, there is on Chandran’s part, a momentary relapse into the child world as he imagines and tries to recall all the reasons as to why Ragavachar would want to see him. He becomes nervous and scared.

But as he hesitates before the door of Ragavachar’s room, he suddenly pulls himself up. He finds no reason why he should be afraid of Ragavachar or anybody. Without his spectacles, the turban, and the long coat, Ragavachar would lose three-quarter of his appearance. So he finds no sense in feeling nervous before a pair of spectacles, a turban, and a black long coat. This timely realization works. It helps him regain his self- confidence and establish an adult-adult relationship with Prof. Ragavachar whom he has always feared to date.

It is just as well that Chandran is able to cut his Professor down to size because Ragavachar had called him only to discuss the idea of starting a Historical Association and to make him its Secretary:

It is just as well that Chandran is able to cut his Professor down to size because Ragavachar had called him only to discuss the idea of starting a Historical Association and to make him its Secretary. But while Chandran does not mind the starting of this association, he is secretly unhappy over having been made its Secretary. As he leaves his Professor’s room, he reflects over this happening and feels contempt for himself as Secretary: “He felt that he was on the verge of losing his personality.

Now he would have to be like Natesan, the Union Secretary.” The desire to be unique and distinct from the rest is strong now though it gets modified in due course when he realizes that every job in this world is important, no matter how mean. “Chandran realized that there was more in these meetings than met they eye or entered the ear. Each meeting was a supreme example of human endeavour, of selfless service.” The organizer in Chandran now surfaces and he makes a success of the Association meetings and this goes on until college breaks for holidays preparatory to the final examination. The first part of his life thus ends with his appearing for the B.A. examination and becoming a graduate—Bachelor of Arts.

Soon after his graduation, a major change comes into Chandran’s life. He falls in love and these changes him immensely:

Having become a graduate, he is yet to decide as to what career he is to choose when well-wishers and relatives begin to pester him with enquiries and advice about his future until “Chandran had a feeling of persecution” Then he decides that he would like to go to England and get a doctorate and tells his father and relatives so.

This convinces everybody because among Indian middle-class going abroad for higher studies enjoys a certain prestige which makes it an accepted excuse for not taking up a job or allied responsibilities. In the meanwhile, there is no college for Chandran now and he enjoys his new-found freedom. He spends his time in the library catching up on the reading he had not been able to do in college.

In the evenings, he goes for long walks alone on the banks of Sarayu as almost all his friends including Ramu have left Malgudi. During one of his rambling along the banks of Sarayu, Chandran he chances upon young girl in a green sari playing with her little companion. He falls in love with her at first sight:

He liked the way she sat; he liked the way she played with her sister, he liked the way she dug her hands into the sand and threw it in the air. He would have willingly settled there and spent the rest of his life watching her dig her hands into the sand.

This prepares us for the ‘irrational’ way in which Chandran falls in love with ‘the girl’ and the manner in which he begins to imagine that she too returns his feelings so that there is a strong case for him to marry her. His infatuation with the Malathi, the girl on the sands, remains merely at the level of eye-friendship and though Chandran is not even sure if she is fair or brown or her nose is straight or crooked, his feelings for her are very intense.

He dreams and fantasizes about her and begins to confuse dream with reality so as to want to marry her. This faithful equation of “optical communion” with love only underscores his immaturity and innocence. Denied of contact with the girl, he can express his feelings in poor imitation in the manner of heroes of books of fiction. He does not have the capacity of a mature adult to devise solution to meet the trouble if and when it comes. That is why he takes the broken affair with Malathi very seriously when the disappointment comes.

Yet the love experience of Chandran is important because it helps him to grow:

Yet the love experience of Chandran is important because it helps him to grow. His being in love brings out many strong qualities in Chandran and these help more and more to place him in the adult world. Even the crisis in love which follows acts as a catalyst on his personality and helps him mature in the end. Let us examine a few examples.

Chandran successfully overcomes his hesitation to broach the subject of his marriage with his father:

Chandran is planning to broach the subject of his marriage with his father but his courage fails him and he can’t touch on the subject. The next day too, he can’t bring up the subject. Yet as he begins to return to his room, he regrets his cowardice: “He would be unworthy of Malathi if he was going to be such a spineless worm afraid of a father! He was not a baby asking for a toy, but a full grown adult out on a serious business” and this realization is useful for it helps him go to his father boldly and tell him that he wishes to marry D.W. Krishna Iyer’s daughter.

His father is taken aback at first but when he realizes that Chandran is dead earnest about it, he says, “I don’t know anything about these things, I must speak to your mother.” His mother is shocked and disappointed for she had hoped for a rich and beautiful daughter-in-law, not for the daughter of a mere Head Clerk. She tries to reason with him as to why he doesn’t consider any of the dozen girls that have been proposed to him. Chandran rejects this suggestion indignantly. His mother asks him how he is sure that they are prepared to give their daughter to him. Chandran tells her that they have to.

There are the stars, the horoscopes and the girl’s parents to be reckoned with still. But Chandran is adamant and inconsolable until his parents relent: “For his sake they were prepared to compromise to this extent; they were prepared to consider the proposal if it came from the other side.” But as the bridegroom’s parents they certainly would not take the initiative for it would be ridiculed. Chandran can’t see eye to eye with them there and he raves, “To the dust pot with your silly customs” thus bringing into open the conflict between older and the younger generation.

It is in the company of Mohan that Chandran shows his most adult self:

Chandran’s one source of comfort is his friend Mohan from whose house on Mill Street, he can take a look at Malathi every day. It is in his company that Chandran shows his most adult self:

“Why should we be cudgelled and nose-led by our elders?” Chandran asked indignantly. “Why can’t we be allowed to arrange our lives as we please? Why can’t they leave us to rise or sink on our own ideals?”

Truly, as Narayan observes, these are “mighty questions” and one wonders at Chandran’s preparedness to face the consequences of so much independence. We are not certain at this stage how far Chandran will be able to break away from tradition or if he will compromise with tradition.

Chandran asserts himself by not going to his uncle’s house as desired by his father and then by hid decision to leave the company of Kailas, the profligate:

At present, his efforts to marry Malathi fail and the letter he sends her asking her to wait for him until the malefic aspect of the stars in his horoscope is dispelled, fails to reach her hands as Mohan who has been asked to hand over the letter to her cannot find the proper opportunity to deliver it to her. She is married to someone else and Chandran’s world crumbles around him.

He decides to leave Malgudi for few days until he can forget everything. His father recommends a visit to his uncle in Madras. Chandran leaves for Madras but as the train steams into the station, he gives the slip to his cousin who has come to fetch him and checks in a hotel. Thus Chandran asserts himself once again; he does not wish to go to his uncle’s house and so he does not go there even though his father desires it.

He makes his own decision. This is corroborated again later when in Madras, in the company of Kailas, the profligate, he gets to see a little of life yet decides to leave him because his life style shocks and revolts him.

Chandran is honest enough to realize that his renunciation is without spiritual motive and that his renunciation “was a revenge on society, circumstances and perhaps too, on destiny”:

However, wherever Chandran goes, thoughts of Malathi and the Kalyani raga, played at her ‘Wedding Notice’ celebration, haunt him and throw him into a state of frantic reaction. He tells himself that there is nothing to live for and decides to become a sanyasi, “the only thing possible short of committing suicide, there was no other way out. He had done with the gamble of life. He was beaten.”

But though Chandran is honest enough to realise that his renunciation is without spiritual motive and that his renunciation “was a revenge on society, circumstances and perhaps too, on destiny”, his attitude on the hole is a negative one. Instead of trying to come to grips with reality, he is merely trying to escape from it, seeking good reasons rather than real reason for his state of mind.

That is why he tells himself that it is all Malathi’s mistake that he is where he is today. She had played with him and him on to this disgraceful condition. He decides to give up his sanyas and return to his home and his parents.

Chandran on his return home finds Mohan a confidant and decides to become the Malgudi agent of The Daily Messenger:

Chandran’s return home is marked by relief among the members of his family who have no idea where he has been for the last eight months. Of course, he does not make them wiser for it even later. On his part he strongly desires to share his experience with a friend. As he does not find Ramu around, he shares his experiences with Mohan who has always been a good and steady friend.

Though he is comfortable in his family, he feels strongly about the fact that he is without an occupation. He realizes that he must become independent as early as possible and leech no more on his father. He also considers the notion of going to England is yet another illusion of his like love and friendship.

He consults Mohan about this and decides to take the Malgudi agency of The Daily Messenger. His father, a retired district judge is not happy with his son’s decision but he does not object too strongly either. This of course happens because the relationship between Chandran and his parents has undergone a transformation since Malathi episode.

In fact, ever since his return, his parents begin to treat him very carefully, as if they were afraid he would go off again if they forced their wishes on him. They have realized that he has an independent streak in him and have learnt to respect it.

Chandran’s frank adult-to-adult discussion with Mohan helps him realise that he is not averse to marriage now as he was three years ago:

Once Chandran is able to get the agency he sets about expanding and establishing his business in real earnest. He almost seems like the old Chandran, happy and cheerful. Yet, one day, almost a year after his home­coming, when his father visits him in his office and asks him very hesitantly if he would be interested in a new marriage proposal suggested for him, Chandran is greatly perturbed and says that he can’t accept it.

At the same time, he doesn’t want to hurt his father and so is almost apologetic when he tells him that he cannot marry yet. His father is most understanding in this matter and leaves it at that. But it is Chandran who realizes that he cannot concentrate on his work anymore:

His father’s visit opened a lid that had smothered raging flames. It started once again all the old controversies that racked one’s soul. It violently shook a poise that was delicate and attained with infinite trouble and discipline.

Since he cannot decide the issue himself, he calls Mohan over for a discussion and tries to clarity it with his help. This becomes his first adult attempt to face reality squarely and try to understand himself. His frank adult-to-adult discussion with Mohan helps him realise that he is not averse to marriage now as he was three years ago though he rationalizes that he does not wish to hurt his parents again. This is borne out by the fact that the mere toss of the coin decides a serious issue such as marriage for him.

Chandran’s philosophy that love is an illusion is disproved when he sees Susila, the girl of his parents’ choice and falls in love with her at first sight:

Here too, Chandran’s philosophy that love is an illusion is disproved when he sees Susila, the girl of his parents’ choice and falls in love with her at first sight. As he returns from her home at Talapur after the bride-seeing ceremony, he thinks of her continuously:

For the rest of the journey the music of the word “Susila” rang in his ears. Susila, Susila, Susila. Her name, music, figure, face and everything about her was divine. Susila, Susila-Malathi, not a spot beside Susila, it was a tongue-twister he wondered why people liked that name.

However, it is only a little later (a few days after his Wedding Notice celebrations), when he thinks of Malathi again that he realizes how spiteful and immature it is for him to think poorly of Malati now. He also realizes that Susila and Malathi are different people and that comparisons are in bad taste. At last Chandran learns to behave like an adult towards Malathi and the above realization finally resolves the crises that had set into his life three years ago.

With his marriage to Susila, love becomes a reality for Chandran (not just “a foolish literary notion”) and before the book concludes, a note of resolution seems to have been struck:

With his marriage to Susila, love becomes a reality for Chandran (not just “a foolish literary notion”) and before the book concludes, a note of resolution seems to have been struck. Chandran has a good job which he likes, a beautiful wife whom he adores, a friend whom he trusts (though he occasionally he remembers Ramu, being of the sentimental, sensitive kind). His earlier negative attitudes get replaced by more positive ones.

He feels more secure now that he has learnt how to make the world of his dreams correspond to the world of reality, though not without necessary pain and suffering. In other words, Chandran grows up, matures into the adult world.