Monday, October 25, 2010

The Painter of Signs - R.K. Narayan

I read RKN's 'The Painter of Signs' recently. At 183 pages it is a slim and easy read and with RKNs smooth, humourous style, it moves on rapidly, drawing you deeper into another corner of his fictional world of Malgudi.

Raman is a painter who makes a living out of painting signboards. He considers himself superior to other painters since he is an educated painter who understand calligraphy and the business and craft of painting. A bachelor at thirty, Raman, is also bent on keeping women and their charms away from polluting his mind and he tries to follow the Mahatma's advise - keep your gaze on your toes during the day and at the stars at night. However, Raman is fighting a losing battle as thoughts of women pervade his mind at times when he is not on guard.

It is at this time in his life that Daisy, a ferocious campaigner for Family Planning, enters the village. Daisy needs a board painted for her office and Raman is hired. This business commitment sparks off something within Raman which grows and grows. As luck would have it, Raman is offered a job of painting thirty boards in thirty villages around Malgudi by Daisy, who asks him to join her on a tour to identify the places to paint signs. During the course of their travels in buses, bullock carts and so on, Raman falls hopelessly in love with this young lady who speaks so passionately about the need for family planning and who is vigilant against all sorts of instigators for procreation. Several times Raman wonders at her zeal, at the extent to which she could go to promote family planning.

A series of incidents later, when Daisy and he come close to one another and even plan a life ahead, Raman finds himself caught in a twist. His unmarried aunt who always took care of him since his parents died, decides to boycott Daisy's entry into their home and goes off to Benares forever. But life is not as simple as falling in love with this clear minded, sharp tongued campaigner for family planning, as Raman finds out.

'The Painter of Signs', published 1977, is laced generously with RKNs humour and wit. The two characters of Raman and Daisy are endearing just as the old aunt's character is. The usual suspects of the Boardless Coffee Shop, Ellaman Street, Kabir Street etc pop up in this part of Malgudi as well. Another masterpiece where RKN portrays Indian society in the small towns so well, the fears, the hopes, the aspirations and all that these characters had to live with in those times. RKN deals with the subject of love and suppressed sex in his thirty year old protagonist with a tongue in cheek manner, but I guess it is still true of any youngster like Raman even today. Read it to know how well simple stories of ordinary people and ordinary places can be told by a master story teller.

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