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

But the matter is not so simple: the ironist is not sure which is reality and which merely seems. Who, for instance, would dare say that Don Quixote’s tragic and lovable ‘illusions’ are only appearance and the real world is that of Sancho Panza? How then are we to judge the issues involved? Professor Chevalier’s answer is that irony is ‘a mode of escape from the fundamental problems and responsibilities of life’.

More specifically, he says, “Irony characterizes the attitude of one, who when confronted with the choice of two things that are mutually exclusive, chooses both. This is but another way of saying that he chooses neither. He cannot bring himself to give up one for the other, and gives up both. But he reserves his right to derive from each the greatest possible passive enjoyment. And this enjoyment is irony.” There is a general tendency to accept that irony and humour must co-exist. Sainsbury, for example, remarks that “an ironist without humour is almost inconceivable.”

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Narayan’s Ironic Vision:

Narayan’s comic vision is ironical. His all embracing irony which includes the particular social context in his men and women who have their various transactions and the existential reality based on their particular experiences. The clash between the tradition and modernity in which Narayan’s characters are sandwiched has ironical implications.

In his novels modernity is a rash and impulsive force that disturbs the peaceful equilibrium of traditional life. The characters in the midst of this conflict emerge as comic and grotesque figures. He is “a pioneer in the tradition of ironic realism in Indo-Anglian fiction. In his novels, irony is not only ingrained in occasional episodes of the narrative, but is a built in phenomenon in plot, character and style.”

The Bachelor of Arts first struck the significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran:

The basic comic situation in Narayan’s novels is one of deviation from the normal and in the plots of his novels he follows the usual pattern of irony—order, disorder, order. The Bachelor of Arts presents a moment from the innocence of childhood to the recklessness and romanticism of youth. Chandran, the protagonist, sways between the innocence of the child and maturity of the adult.

A student of history and later the first secretary of History Association, Chandran suggests: “Historians should be slaughtered first” as the topic for the College Union Debate. This is highly ironical and suggests the shape of things to come. Chandran, a first rated lover, renounces the world in sheer disgust and becomes a sanyasi and then returns to the conventional family fold and leads the life of a devoted husband. The Bachelor of Arts first struck the significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran, and with each successive novel it became an integral element in Narayan’s comic fictional art.

Narayan straightaway takes his readers to the hustle bustle of the college where his hero, Chandran is doing his final year B.A. in History:

Narayan straightaway takes his readers to the hustle bustle of the college where his hero, Chandran is doing his final year B.A. in History. Characteristically enough, the novel opens in a humorous note with Natesan, the Secretary of the College Union asking Chandran to be the Prime Mover for the debate the following evening and move the topic that the historians should be slaughtered first. Chandran being a student of history is in a fit to move a topic debunking historians and earn the displeasure of his history professor, Ragavachar.

But Natesan, the Secretary assures him that he will not invite his professor. Chandran goes to the college Library but finds volumes and volumes of history but nothing concerned with slaughtering the historians. In his worry to prepare for the topic, he does not even pay attention to his lecture classes. Finally, he manages to muster some points and a humorous anecdote as footage for his speech. His speech is received very well. Even Principal Brown is said to have enjoyed his speech. At the end, the House with a majority of votes decides in favour of the proposal and Chandran feels quiet happy at the outcome.

Narayan gives a realistic and humorous account of college election through the Secretary, Natesan:

When he returns home with the Secretary, Natesan we learn that he bought the votes during the election by bribing the voters with tiffin and coffee. This is both a realistic and humorous touch of Narayan about college elections. Chandran runs down Natesan and others for making much of Professor Brown’s sense of humour. Chandran hopes that Natesan will make some observation about his speech that evening.

As he does not do it, Chandran asks Natesan about it. When Chandran learns that it was very good and appreciated even by Professor Brown, he is happy about it. He quickly withdraws his harsh comments on both Natesan and Professor Brown and says that he meant nothing serious by his personal remarks about him and observes that Professor Brown is a great scholar with a nice sense of humour.

Narayan gives us an ironic picture of Assistant Professor of English Mr. Gajapathi who is both unpopular with his students and his colleagues:

Narayan gives us an ironic picture of Assistant Professor of English Mr. Gajapathi who is both unpopular with his students and his colleagues. He is unpopular with his students because of his teaching and unpopular with his colleagues because of his conceit. He is self-righteous, arrogant and conceited. He considers himself to be the custodian of English language and especially its punctuation.

He has notion of his knowledge of Shakespeare so much so he runs down celebrated critics like Dowden and Bradley. He has the audacity to correct the English of Fowler. No wonder, he is hated by his colleagues. Though Chandran attends Professor Gajapathi’s lectures on Othello, his mind is not in the class. Further Chandran finds that it is not Shakespeare’s Othello but it is Gajapathi’s Othello with his self-conceit and academic arrogance.

Without taking lecture notes, he draws the image of an elephant with spectacles on to represent Gajapathi, the elephant master! When Gajapathi later wants to see his lecture notes, Chandran tells him that he has not taken any notes and excuses himself saying that he has an appointment with Professor Ragavachar just then.

Professor Brown’s sarcastically humorous rejoinder to Professor Raghavachar during the Inaugural of the Historical Association is enjoyed by every one:

Narayan depicts the picture of Professor Brown and Chairman, Professor Ragavachar life-like with their mannerisms intact. Though Ragavachar says that he will not take more than a few minutes, he takes a full forty minutes! Narayan is at his ironical best in describing the speech of Ragavachar trying to dispel the darkness of majority people with respect to Indian History by bringing light through his Historical Association in the college as well as the sarcastically humorous rejoinder to his speech by the downright debunking of History by Professor Brown. Narayan provides an excellent fare of humour through the intellectual fencing between Ragavachar and Brown.

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour:

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour. 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.

Narayan brings out the ironic contrast in the handling of the flower thief. He is nabbed with avenging fury as a thief and dragged to the hall for enquiry but his ochre-cloth totally transforms the whole scene. Chandran’s father who cries for the blood of the fellow becomes all of a sudden weak- willed and soft. Chandran’s mother does not want to earn the curse of the holy (?) man. So he is let off ceremoniously—with nothing short of falling at his feet.

Narayan is highly ironical of the so-called fake sanyasis who try to exploit the faith of the pious people to feather their own nests. Chandran’s approach towards the whole episode is rational for he believes that the ochre-cloth and matted hair of a so-called sanyasi grant him the license to justify his stealing while that of his parents who are afraid of the curse of a sanyasi and letting him go scot-free is orthodox. The specious argument of the flower-thief is like the Devil quoting Scripture!

Narayan’s ironic vision is revealed in his depiction of Kailas and his sentimental humbug:

At about five in the evening, Kailas takes Chandran to ‘Hotel Merten’. He asks Chandran to have a glass of beer with him. Chandran tells him that he does not drink any sort of alcohol. Then Kailas orders a glass of lime juice for Chandran and a gin and soda for him. He asks Chandran to have at least a little port or something. Chandran asks Kailas to excuse him for he has made a vow to his mother never to touch alcohol in his life.

This affects Kailas deeply. He remains solemn for a moment and says that Chandran should not drink alcohol if he had promised to his mother not to touch it. One must respect the word given to one’s mother. Kailas too was a good son to his mother. The moment she died, he has changed. Where she alive, Kailas would have studied in college and become a respectable person. Chandran could not have found him there. Kailas goes on a drinking spree with gin following whisky and whisky following gin till about eight-thirty in the evening.

Narayan is highly ironical about Kailas’s mother-sentiment. He says that he was a good son as long as his mother was alive. But after his death, he fell into evil ways. If she had been alive, he would have been to a college and become a very responsible person and Chandran could not have met him in a hotel like that.

Narayan does not miss to point out how the taxi driver befools the drunken Kailas by landing him in the house of some other prostitute in Mint Street instead of the house of Kokilam. Again Narayan is highly ironical about the middle-aged prostitute who asks Kailas ‘what is there in a name?’ when he asks her if it is Kokilam’s house.

Narayan provides a humorous account of Chandran’s embarrassment as a sanyasi 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.

Narayan’s humour is part and parcel of the fabric of his novel:

We have given here only a few samples revealing the various shades of Narayan’s rich humour. Pages after pages of the novel keep the reader entertained with a rich fare of Narayan’s humour. And another thing, the best way to enjoy the humour will be to enjoy in the context where it occurs. To isolate them out of the text may be an interesting academic exercise but not real enjoyment. This is because Narayan’s humour in its widest application is part and parcel of the fabric of the novel enriching its liveliness and sparkle.

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