Short Summary of “Painter of Signs” by R. K. Narayan

The novel ends with Raman trying to feel relieved, trying to recover his old life of idleness in Malgudi. It is the point the unfulfilled dream of freedom, the dream of Narayan’s own enchanted childhood at which many of Narayan’s novels end: the point at which you see his characters finally turning away from the challenges of self-creation and individuality which every developing nation imposes on its people and seeking re-absorption into the passivity and sterility of old India. Such non-resolutions expose Narayan to the charge of escapism, especially in India, where serious artists are often expected, when not to create suitable role models for young people, to add at any rate to the narrative of nation- building and Indian self-assertion.

Yet the limitations we might see in Narayan’s characters are the limitations of the still-raw and shapeless society in which they have their being: limitations that are not overcome, but merely avoided, by leaps into fantasy and myth that such ready-made forms as magic realism facilitate.

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Narayan, as the first writer of his kind, was always far from attaining an intellectual overview of his circumstances. Early realist writers like him usually stay within, and share the prejudices of, the particular historical moment they finds themselves in; sometimes offering, as Narayan does in his later novels, quasi-religious explanations for the chaotic nature of their world.

This is why Narayan’s political ideas, when spelled out in his nonfiction, seem only marginally more sophisticated than those offered by his characters. In his book about his American travels, My Dateless Diary (1988), Narayan rejects, like Jagan in The Vendor of Sweets or Srinivas in Mr. Sampath, any real engagement with the modern world; fear and insecurity seem to lie concealed underneath his complacent humor.

The fiction and essays he wrote after his first and for the colonial writer, crucial encounter with the West in the 1950s hint at a kind of intellectual self-narrowing that is often the result of the colonial’s bewilderment and resentful pride before the metropolitan culture that has partly formed him.

Narayan, however, by writing from deep within his small shrinking world, came to acquire an instinctive understanding of it. He developed with it the special intimacy which is sometimes capable of taking the novelist to truths deeper and subtler than those yielded by a more analytical intelligence.

It is the unmediated fidelity his novels have to his constricted experience which makes them seem so organic in both their conception and execution, and which also makes him now, remarkably, a more accurate guide to modern India than the intellectually more ambitious writers of recent years.

The early novels with their energetic young men (Swami, Chandran, and Krishna), the middle novels, with the restless drifters (Srinivas, Sriram), and in the later novels, the men wounded and exiled by the modern world (Jagan, Raman) map out an emotional and intellectual journey that many middle-class people in formerly colonial societies have made: the faint consciousness of individuality and nationality through colonial education; confused anticolonial assertion; postcolonial sense of inadequacy and failure; unfulfilled private lives; distrust of modernity and individual assertion; and, finally, in middle or old age, the search for cultural authenticity and renewal in the neglected, once-great past.

“The silent spirit of collective masses is the source of all great things,” Renan wrote at Turgenev’s death. That silent spirit is what Narayan, writing about men and worlds condemned to ambivalence, renders eloquent in his best novels. His characters don’t leave the pages of his books without having achieved a kind of nobility, as part of an all-encompassing vision in which everything is accepted and forgiven.

The characters, for instance, in The Financial Expert (1952) small-time con men, greedy landlords, ingrate children, embittered parents, unhappy wives, exploited villagers are like people locked in a trance, in what the Hindus call maya: the immense illusion of existence. They busily deceive each other and themselves; and everyone seems lost in the end. No liberation of the spirit, you feel, is likely to happen to these characters. Yet Narayan considers them with sympathy, even affection.

We see them as the creator of maya himself, that great ironic illusionist, would see us. It is this religious- seeming acceptingness that gives Narayan’s novels their peculiar irony an irony rooted not in skepticism about human motives and actions but in a strong and consistent faith: an irony that belongs less to the European tradition of the novel than to a Hindu view of the world, in which the conflicts and contradictions of individuals and societies, however acute and compelling, are in the end no more than minor events in the life of an old and serene cosmic order.

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