Short Summary of “Waiting for the Mahatma” by R. K. Narayan

There is a short story he wrote soon after independence, “Lawley Road,” which portrays some of the confused impulses and blind nationalism of that mass movement. The story, which is included in Malgudi Days, describes how the statue of a British man called Lawley is scornfully dismantled and sold and then reinstated by the municipal authorities after Lawley is discovered to be the creator of Malgudi.

But it is in Waiting for the Mahatma that you find a franker ambivalence about that anti-colonial struggle and its impact on the Indian masses. Here many more Indians are making of the Freedom Movement whatever suits their private narrow ends: men eager to revere Gandhi as a mahatma, eager to be touched by his aura of holiness, while remaining indifferent to, or simply uncomprehending of, his emphasis on developing an individual self- awareness and vision.

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There is the corrupt chairman of the municipal corporation who has replaced, just before Gandhi’s visit to Malgudi, the pictures of English kings and hunting gentry in his house with portraits of Congress leaders; he then worries about the low-caste boy Gandhi talks to sullying his “Kashmir counterpane.” There is the novel’s chief protagonist, Sriram, another feckless young man in Malgudi, who joins the 1942 Quit India movement after falling for Bharati, an attractively gentle and idealistic young woman in Gandhi’s entourage.

Sriram drifts around the derelict, famine-stricken countryside, painting the words “Quit India” everywhere, arguing with apathetic and hostile villagers about the need to throw out the British. His weak grasp of Gandhi’s message is confirmed by the fact that he lets himself be persuaded by an egotistical terrorist to become a saboteur. He is arrested and spends years in jail, longing for Bharati. His abandoned grandmother almost dies and then goes off to live her last years in Benares; and then Gandhi himself, devastated by the massacres and rapes of Partition, is assassinated on the last page of the novel.

Even before his death, as Waiting for the Mahatma shows, Gandhi’s spirit had been absorbed into the ostentatious puritanism of the men who came to rule India, the uniqueness of his life and ideas appropriated into the strident Indian claim to the moral high ground a claim first advanced through Gandhi’s asceticism and emphasis on nonviolence, and then, later, through the grand rhetoric of socialism, secularism, and nonalignment.

In fact, Gandhi alone emerges as the active, self-aware Indian in the novel, struggling and failing to awaken an intellectually and emotionally torpid colonial society, a society made up overwhelmingly of people who have surrendered all individual and conscious choice, and are led instead by decayed custom and herd impulses, in whose dull, marginal lives Gandhi comes as yet another kind of periodic distraction.

The one other person who embodies individual initiative and positive endeavour in the novel and he makes a fleeting appearance turns out to be a British tea planter; and Narayan makes him come out very much on top in his encounter with Sriram. He is friendly and hospitable to Sriram, who has painted the words “Quit India” on his property. Sriram, unsettled by the tea planter’s composure, tries to assume a morally superior position. Narayan shows him floundering, resorting fatuously to half-remembered bits and pieces of other people’s aggressive anti-British rhetoric.

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