A little boy who walks to school; the arrival of Railways; an old orthodox mother; a neglected and discouraged wife; unwavering followers; and a Swami with a tainted past – these are all vignettes of an India that lives among the memory of the post-colonial times.
The Guide, by R.K. Narayan, bundles the threads of these post-Raj images, and weaves them into the tale of Raju. In doing so he encapsulates the sentiments of an India after the Raj, an India that is conflicted between being traditional or modern. This book also introduces us to a woman’s status in these times of contrasting perceptions – be it a traditional woman, who has been in public for only once; or a modern woman, with a college education – the men in their lives are the ones making the decisions for them. They pay no regard to the opinions and wants of the women in question. Women are still waiting to be asked.
Raju, a tour guide, meets Rosie, the neglected wife of his client Marco, and is immediately taken by her form and spirit.
My thoughts dwelt on her golden touch. A part of my mind went on saying. ‘No, no. It is not right. Marco is her husband, remember. It’s not to be thought of.’
His infatuation with the beautiful Rosie made him turn a deaf ear towards his friend Gaffur’s warning, his orthodox mother’s pleas, and the reasoning of own conscience. He gets embroiled in an extra-marital affair. Such is the enormity of this absurdity in that era, that controversial instances are merely hinted at. The taboo on sex, that too extra-marital, fell so heavily that even the author had to imply its occurrence in the book rather than directly allude to it.
“No, no. Go away,” she said. But on an impulse I gently pushed her out of the way, and stepped in and locked the door to the world.
Even in print, the modern India was constrained by tradition. Modernity strived all the same, for it was only a modern college degree that could have overwritten a caste back then. Alas, for the post-graduate Rosie , her academic achievements were no match for her social standing as a caste less woman. But, they did meet the conditions of Marco, her modern husband with traditional expectations. Rosie married Marco to leave her caste, but couldn’t seem to let go of dance, her art form . Still , for all his modern outlook, Marco was not at all supportive of his wife’s ambition for dancing, which she did with so much devotion and grace. It is in Marco that we see a husband, limiting his wife to his needs, not her potential; seeing her not as a friend and lover, but as an extension of his respect and dignity.
The Guide brings us face to face with The Husband, with whom The Wife couldn’t be anything and without whom The Wife was nothing.
When Rosie’s husband abandoned her, she helplessly turned to Raju for helping her realise her ambitions. She had no doubt influenced the ruin of his past employment but she also gave him a chance at a more rewarding pursuit, to which he happily applied himself as a labourer of love.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]While watching Rosie do her practice I seemed to get a clearer notion of what I should be doing.[/pullquote]
Rosie, upon becoming famous and respected, called herself Nalini and Raju, at seeing his wealth and influence grow, answered to Raj. With the change of name there was a change of intentions. All that Raju did for Rosie was out of love, but Raj’s services were driven by bottomless greed.
The thought of her warmed me up. “She is a gold-mine,” I cried.
Raj exploited her. Nalini was no longer a form of Rosie’s creative expression, but took shape of Raj’s money maker.
Once again, Narayan opens our eyes to yet another facet of the Indian psyche – the sense of possession, which men hold over their female counterparts.
The Indian atmosphere like that of Narayan’s fictional Malgudi is abound with fungal spores of men and women with tainted pasts. They take root wherever there is a rich bed of good, gullible people and sprout into Godmen, or Godwomen , from nothing. They conjure ash out of thin air, provide means to network with divinity, or simply cure death. They enchant, enthrall and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin , may even coerce their blind followers to jump off a cliff. Raju fades behind prison bars and becomes Swami outside of it, purely by chance.
It seems to me that we generally do not have a correct measure of our own wisdom.
It is most surprising to see him consider himself equal to the role unwittingly thrust upon him. He adapts himself to make the most of the situation. He would narrate stories from the epics, give spiritual discourses or simply pretend to meditate when he didn’t feel like doing anything in particular. He would effortlessly carry out a sham.
His beard now caressed his chest, his hair covered his back and around his neck he wore a necklace of prayer beads.
Raju now looked like a Godman, spoke like a Godman, he just wasn’t a god-man. Yet his followers would seek him for answers without questioning his capabilities. Even the village head-master, a man of sound mind, went about following his suggestions. Such was his charisma.
Within a short span of time Swami had become the center of the village thought.
He protested to Velan one day, “I’m a poor man and you are poor men; why do you give me all this? You must stop it.” But it was not possible to stop the practice; they loved to bring him gifts. He came to be called Swami by his congregation, and where he lived was called the Temple. It was passing into common parlance. “The Swami said this or that,” or “I am on my way to the Temple.” People loved this place so much that they lime-washed its walls and drew red bands on them.
The devotion towards Swami grew. His words, however untrue, were taken as etched in stone. They brought untold comfort and generated hope. After the drought broke, Swami began a fast to appease the rain god. Immediately, the whole country was taken by this selfless soul. Mangal, the village, became flooded with devotees and media persons and government officials and politicians.
A tour guide had become a tourist attraction!
‘The Guide’ manages to essesntially describe a much discussed aspect of the religious scenario of the present-day India, in spite of being written more that half a century ago. Only now, the ‘Godpeople’ are more glamorous, while their tainted pasts stretch on till their present. They aren’t just spiritual leaders, but also the brand ambassadors of their manufactured products, be it biscuits or noodles. It is the blind faith of the followers which doesn’t diminish.
‘The Guide’ ends on a promising note, as Swami fasts selflessly. A Godman acting on pure intents is quite unheard of in this day and age. This work of Narayan holds great significance as it brings to light societal taboos that we have known and felt – the hardships of women, that we have seen and condemned; the God-men that we have criticized or agreed with. It isn’t hard to draw parallels between Swami and our current Godmen.
For instance, Valentine’s Day, a day of love, attracts a lot of hate from the Hindu Fundamentalists. Moral policing and public beatings of couples aren’t uncommon. This year, Asaram Bapu, a self-styled God-man, advocated the celebration of ‘Matri Pitri Pujan Diwas ‘ in lieu of Valentine’s Day. Note, that this very spiritual figure is in jail for his alleged involvement with a sexual assault case.
Societal life continues to be an uphill battle for women. Ghastly stories of dowry deaths are a ubiquitous feature of newspapers. Other tales of exploitation, such as domestic abuse, unfair wages, and sexual harassment at the workplace, are rife in all manners of media. In spite of being clothed in modernity, women are still draped by tradition.
The saddest part is that after all these years, not much has changed.
Picture credits: theguardian.com.