Is R.K. Narayan’s Novel “The Bachelor of Arts” a Picaresque Novel?

The rogue or picaro is the central figure, and in the novel he plays many roles and wears many masks. The true Spanish picaresque novel is represented by the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and by Mateo Aleman’s more widely influential Guzman de Alfarache (1599-1604); its imitators include Johann Grimmelhausen’s Simplicissimus (1669) in German, Alain-Rene Lesage’s Gil Bias (1715—35) in French, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) in English.

In the looser sense now more frequently used, the term is applied to narratives that do not have a picaro as their central character, but are loosely structured as a sequence of episodes united only by the presence of the central character, who is often involved in a long journey: Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Fluckleberry Finn (1884) are examples of novels that are referred to as being wholly or partly picaresque in this sense, while Byron’s narrative poem Don Juan (1819-24) is a rare case of a picaresque story in verse.

A picaresque novel has a number of peculiar features of its own:

A picaresque novel has a number of peculiar features of its own. It is a string of incidents and episodes, which have no unity and coherence, except the unity of the hero, that is to say the same hero, the same picaro or rogue figures in each of them. It is episodic in character and the characters are not rounded three dimensional figures. They lack individuality and are not fully developed. Most of the characters appear and disappear never to make their appearance again. New characters are introduced even towards the close of the novel, so that we know very little about them.

The Bachelor of Arts, indeed, has many features of the picaresque novel:

The Bachelor of Arts, indeed, has many features of the picaresque novel. It has a number of episodes and incidents which do not have any connection with each other except that the same central figure Chandran takes part in each of them. We are first of all introduced to Chandran as a student who is earnest in his studies. We are also given glimpses of his family atmosphere. But we are given only light sketches of his professors, of his parents, and of his younger brother.

Though Narayan names Chandran’s father, Chandran’s mother presented in bold sketches is not named. Chandran’s brother Seenu just remains as a prop of the family-set up. In the same way, Chandran’s uncle and aunt at Madras are not named and they have only a transit value in Chandran’s life. Chandran’s friends Ramu, Natesan and Veeraswami make brief appearances and then disappear. Mohan is the only exception and he plays an important role in the second half of the novel in shaping up the career and marriage of Chandran. Characters like Chandran’s uncle, Kailas, barber Ragavan are introduced in the latter half of the novel and their characters are not fully developed. They appear and disappear never figuring again.

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour has a picaresque touch:

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour has a picaresque touch. Chandran makes a decision to prepare seriously for his impending final examination by getting at four-thirty next morning. Man proposes but God disposes. His father unable to bear the smarts of his wife decides to catch the flower thief and lay him at her feet, alive or dead.

The minor tiff between Chandran’s mother and his father over preventing the theft of flowers in the garden is given a mock-epic touch by Narayan. In his ardour for catching the thief, he is like a Knight Templar fighting a dragon for the cause of his ladylove. Next morning, he gets up at four-thirty and waits at the garden armed with a stout bamboo stick followed by his son Seenu too having a similar weapon in his possession.

He asks Chandran to blow out his lamp lest the thief should become alert. Chandran also joins them and divides the force tactically and placing it in different location. But when the sun rises, it is found that the flower plants are found to be bare. So he decides that they should get up at four the next morning and nab the thief.

The next day, Chandran’s father and he succeed in nabbing the flower- thief. But he is found to be a sanyasi in his ochre-loin cloth and matted hair. He does not consider his act as a theft. Flowers are God’s creation. He has taken them for his daily Puja before sun rise. He has no idea that the lady of the house will be using them for her Puja. If he has known about it, he will have left enough flowers for the lady’s worship of her gods.

He has taken the flowers because he thinks that they are grown there for decoration as they do in many bungalows. He will have taken their permission to collect the flowers in their garden but he has to rob them of their sleep, which he does not like to do. On seeing the ochre-cloth of the flower thief, Chandran’s father relaxes his hold on him and his mother asks them not to hand him over the police as suggested by Chandran and invoke the holy man’s curse. Chandran’s father asks him to open the gate for the sanyasi to go out.

In the flower-thief episode, the picaro is actually the person in ochre- cloth and not Chandran, the protagonist of the novel:

In the flower-thief episode, the picaro is actually the person in ochre- cloth and not Chandran, the protagonist of the novel. The flower-thief is a scoundrel in ochre-cloth pilfering the flowers in the garden but having no qualms about it. When Chandran accuses him of his shameless theft perpetrated in ochre-cloth, the flower thief is not at all shaken.

He justifies his stand by pointing his fingers at his accusers for having misunderstood him. He says that he has thought that the flowers in the garden are grown for decoration as they do in other bungalows. Further he has used the flowers for his puja and he will have left behind some flowers if he has known that the lady of the house also uses the flowers for her puja.

He has not taken their permission to gather flowers because he does not want to disturb their sleep in the early morning and has to gather flowers so early as to finish his puja before sunrise. His argument is highly specious and he is like the Devil quoting Scripture. Chandran in fact comes in contact with the picaro by virtue of lending a helping to his father to nab the culprit.

Like a picaro Chandran goes to Madras, becomes a sanyasi and wanders from place to place:

Disappointed in his love affair with Malathi, Chandran leaves for Madras with the intention of going to his uncle’s house there. Chandran on arrival at Madras does not go to his uncle’s house. He gives a slip to his cousin who has come to receive him at the station and takes a room in a lodge near the People’s Park.

There a middle-aged man by name Kailas thrust his friendship on him. He takes him to the bar and then to a prostitute’s house in Mint Street. This is the first time that he has been so close to a man in drink; this is the first time he has stood at the doorstep of a prostitute’s house. He is much terrified at this horrible experience. He flees the place. After leaving several streets behind, he feels tired and sits down on a pavement.

Chandran thinks about his home and wishes to be back there by taking some train. But the memory of Malathi, horoscopes, astrologers, the piper piping Kalyani raga, his unsympathetic mother will all torment him if he returns to Malgudi. So he makes up his mind never to return to Malgudi. He is now like a sanyasi. No, he will become one by shaving his head and wearing ochre clothes.

He has finished with the gamble of life. Enough is enough. He gets up and wanders a little in search of his hotel. Then he realizes that it is a futile search. He is not going to achieve anything by it. He thinks why he, a sanyasi should bother about his possessions like bag and other things. He feels his luggage will require for the payment to be made to the hotel.

Chandran requests barber Ragavan to help him become a sanyasi:

At first Chandran boards the G.T, Express with a ticket for ‘Bezwada’. But he hates the name ‘Bezwada’ and jumped out of the train after throwing away the ticket. He crosses the road and gets into a tramcar and settles down in a street comfortably. On learning from the conductor that the tramcar is going to Mylapore, he buys a ticket for that destination.

After half-an-hour’s journey, he reaches Mylapore. He goes to Kapaleeswarar temple and worships all the images on the around the holy corridor. He sees a barber by name Ragavan sitting on the steps of the temple tank. Chandran approaches him with a request to shave his head and get him a pair of cheap loin-cloths and a pair of upper cloths dyed in ochre. He tells the barber that he will give his dress and purse if the other accedes to his request. The barber is surprised at Chandran’s desire to become a sanyasi at this very young age. He tries to dissuade him. But Chandran is firm in his stand. He asks Ragavan that he shall not speak about it to anyone.

Chandran with the help of barber Ragavan writes a postcard intimating his decision to wander about aimlessly:

The barber takes him to his hut and asks him to sit on a mat rolled to him by his wife. He returns in the afternoon with a pair of loincloths dyed in ochre. He also brings a few plantains and a green coconut for Chandran. As Chandran is hungry, he does not refuse the hospitality of barber Ragavan. He then asks the barber to get him a postcard.

He borrows a short pencil from the barber and writes a letter to his father informing him of his safe arrival in Madras; of his being happy and cheerful without being worried about the marriage and of his decision to wander a lot. He asks his father not to worry on his score and report to the police if he does not hear from him for a long time. He requests his father not to make a fuss on his account and conveys his respects to his mother. He promises to his father that he will be all right soon. In the postscript he adds that he is going with some friends whom he has met at Madras.

Chandran becomes a sanyasi and wanders from place to place aimlessly and lives on public charity:

Chandran with his shaven head and ochre loincloth becomes a sanyasi who has renounced the world and is untouched by its joys and sorrows. He travels several districts on foot, and when he is tired gets a lift on a passing cart or even a bus. He never cares to know where he is going or staying except that it is not in the direction of his home town, Malgudi. One town is exactly like the other so he does not care to learn their names as they matter little to a sanyasi.

He appeases his hunger by begging in the houses nearby or by begging for fruits or coconut in the bazaar. In the beginning it is very difficult for him to control his craving for coffee but he disciplines himself to self-imposed suffering and soon gets over the craving for it. He sleeps under a roof if anybody invited him, if not; he sleeps in the open, or in the country.

Chandran becomes the object of reverence and veneration at Koopal village:

After wandering for about eight months, Chandran reaches Koopal village in Sainad District. It is a small village at the foot of the range of mountains that connect the Eastern and the Western Ghats. It is a hot afternoon. He drinks water in the channel feeding the paddy fields. He is very tired as he has been walking since dawn.

He reclines on the root of the banyan tree and slept. When he wakes up, he notices that a crowd of innocent and credulous villagers standing around him. They begin asking all sorts of questions like where his worshipful master has come from and so on. As Chandran wants to avoid a conversation with them, he answers in them by signs. They construe that he is under a vow of silence.

As the news that a holy man has come to their village spreads, more people begin to gather round him. So Chandran closes his eyes to avoid their stare. This is taken by the others for meditation. An important man of the village requests Chandran to stay in his poor abode and bless him. Chandran by signs declines the offer. Soon the villagers feel pleased at the presence of a holy man having chosen to stay with them. They worship him and give him fruits and milk.

When Chandran decides to leave the village, they begged him to stay with them for a few more days:

When Chandran decides to leave the village, they beg him to stay with them for a few more days. Chandran accedes to their request moved by their touching devotion. When he goes back to his seat under the banyan tree, the villagers are greatly rejoiced. Men, women and children follow him to the banyan tree. News spreads that a holy man under the vow of silence for ten years has arrived, and that he spends his time in rigorous meditation under a banyan tree.

People from neighbouring villages begin pouring to seek the blessings of the holy man. When night falls, somebody has brought a lighted lantern for him. He finds that they have all brought gifts of milk, fruits and food. The sight of the gifts pricks his conscience. He feels that he is a fraud, and a confidence-trickster preying on the faith of the poor villagers. He eats some fruit and drinks a little milk with the greatest self-deprecation.

Sitting in the dark, Chandran subjects himself to a severe soul- searching self-analysis and finds that he is a fake sanyasi preying on the faith of the innocent villagers:

Chandran moves away from the gifts. He even blows out the lantern for he felt that he does not deserve this light. Sitting in the dark, he subjects himself to a severe soul-searching self-analysis. He feels that he is cheating the poor villagers and exploiting their faith in him as a sanyasi. He feels that he really does not deserve their gifts as he lacks spiritual worth. He realizes that his love for Malathi has brought him to his present degradation.

He is sorry that he has deserted his parents on account of his silly infatuation for Malathi. He feels that there is no such thing as love; it is a foolish literary notion. Driven by a non-existent thing, he has become a deserter and a counterfeit. He feels that he should summon all the villagers at once and announce to them that he is a fake. They may not believe him or they may take him to be mad or they may mob him for having fooled them. So he decides the best course will be to leave the village then and there.

With the help of the postmaster at Maduram Chandran contacts his father, gave up his sanyas, becomes a lay man and returns to Malgudi:

Chandran walks all night, and early in the morning he sights a bus and gets a lift. At his request the conductor stops the bus a couple of miles away from Maduram where there is a telegraph office. Chandran meets the postmaster of Maduram post office. He takes the postmaster into confidence and opens his heart to him.

He gives a clear account of his life and troubles. On hearing his story, the postmaster lends him the amount for sending a telegram to his father for money. With the help of the postmaster, Chandran cuts his hair, shaves his face, takes a refreshing bath and dresses himself in the postmaster’s dhoti and shirt. He throws away his bundled sanyasi robes in the adjacent lane.

He gets a little oil and a comb from the postmaster and brushes his hair neatly. He feels greatly excited at his change. At about four in the afternoon, his father sends fifty rupees to him, though he has wired for only twenty-five. Chandran catches a Madras- bound train at Maduram at one o’clock at night. After changing trains at two junctions, he gets down at Malgudi station in the morning two days later.

Back at Malgudi, Chandran at the suggestion of Mohan decides to become the Malgudi agent for The Daily Messenger, a daily issued from Madras. He goes again to Madras but this time, he stays with his uncle’s family. His uncle helps him secure the agency. He never makes his appearance in the novel again. By hard work and excellent canvassing tactics Chandran improves the circulation of the Daily. Soon he marries a young girl by name ‘Susila’ chosen for him by his parents and settles down in life. His wife ‘Susila’ is just mentioned in the novel and she actually does not make her appearance in the novel.

Though the Bachelor of Arts has some of the features of a picaresque novel, its central figure Chandran is not a picaro:

The Bachelor of Arts has all these features of a picaresque novel. But it differs from the usual picaresque novel in one important respect. Its central figure Chandran is not a picaro. It is true that he wanders as a sanyasi as a result of his frustration and loss of grip with life. But his sanyas is not an expression of his roguery and wickedness like that of the flower thief who appears in the novel.

He does not suffer from any evil motive or wickedness. On the other hand, he is a young man of strict principles. Even when he is very much under the glare of temptation through Kailas, he abstains from wine and woman and takes the earliest opportunity to quit Kailas for good. He is capable self-examination and is able discriminate between right and wrong.

The moment he realizes that he is a false sanyasi cheating on the faith of the innocent and the credulous people, he quits his sanyas and returns to his parents to assuage their suffering caused on account of his long absence from home. He decides to take up the agency of The Daily Messenger so that he will no longer be a burden on his parents.