Monday, June 20, 2011

Waiting for the Mahatma - R. K. Narayan

This book was the last in a bunch of R. K. Narayan's books that I had picked up sometime ago. 'Waiting for the Mahatma', published by Indian Thought Publications (Rs.115, 254 pages), was first published in 1955 by Metheun & Co Ltd and was subsequently reissued in 1979 by another publisher.

'Waiting for the Mahatma' is the story of a young man, Sriram, who resides in Malgudi and deals with the influence the Mahatma had on him during the years of the Indian freedom struggle. Sriram is an orphan who has lost both his parents and  he lives with his grandmother in one of Malgudi's older localities, a comfortable existence with his father's pension and a doting grandmother. He does not appear to be doing much in terms of furthering any academic ambitions and prefers sitting at the window and watching the street. Now since he is twenty grandmother takes him to a Fund Office where they have their pension money and tells the manager there that Sriram has turned twenty and can now handle his own money. Sriram feels free to take some decisions, draws some money and walks about spending it when he meets Bharati, an ardent follower of Gandhiji, who is collecting money for some funds. Sriram falls in love with her instantly and thus gets involved with her life. Her life is pretty much revolving around Gandhiji and his movement so Sriram joins the freedom movement in the hope that he may get closer to Bharati, who also appears to be an orphan.

Gandhiji comes to town, moves on his own whims and fancies, does not stay at the guest house nor with the rich patron, and prefers to stay in the untouchable colony, gives speeches, meets people etc. Bharati takes Sriram to meet Gandhiji and Sriram is told to do what Bharathi tells hmi. She becomes his guru. Sriram moves to a cave in the hills, gets deeper into the Quit India movement, tries to force the marriage issue with Bharathi but gets rejected, gets involved with a terrorist called Jagadish, is wanted by the police. He visits his grandmother in disguise who survives a death scare and is rescued dramatically off her funeral pyre when her toe starts wiggling, gets arrested at the burial grounds and goes to jail. His only solace is that Bharati is also in jail somewhere.

In jail he meets many different criminals and is finally released after the British leave India. His grandmother has gone to Varanasi. his neighbourhood has changed. he writes and locates Bharati who invites him to Delhi where she is living in a hut and taking care of refugee children. He proposes again and they seek the blessings of the Mahatma who promises to perform their wedding himself, the next morning. They go to the prayer meeting where a person rushes up to the stage to the Mahatma and shoots him.

'Waiting for the Mahatma' dwells on the freedom struggle, the Mahatma and his ways, and the kind of an impact he had on the youth in those days which was very interesting for me to read. RKN brings up many arguments through different characters, those who embrace a violent route and those who follow Gandhiji (without fully understanding how his method of non-violence or satyagraha could drive away the British). But such was the power of his conviction that they followed him and his words to death.'Love the enemy, and only then will he change,' said Gandhiji and they all tried to love their enemy. They practised non-violence, spun the charkha and made khadi, shunned all things foreign, behaved like true satyagrahis - all at an age when they would hardly understand the true import of what they were doing. Gandhiji's take on untouchability is shown impacting Sriram as he wonders how his grandmother ill treats the boy who comes to clean the roads. Much were the sacrifices demanded from the youth and his followers by the highly evolved Gandhiji, and they all did try to be perfect examples of what the Gandhiji asked of them. Sriram is a perfect example of a young man who has no leanings or convictions, and is only motivated by love, but even he gets into the movement and makes some big sacrifices.

The Mahatma's ideology and thought are too bizarre to even comprehend that he took it to the people and made it happen. The more one thinks of it, the more improbable and dreamlike this whole non-violent movement, satyagraha appears - it sounds like a fairy tale, a moral science cum spiritual weapon that Gandhiji used in the most violent act that humans conceived -war. His views of everything were so progressive and evolved that it is incredible to imagine where he got them from and how he tried to practice them with such discipline. To me he is the biggest phenomenon of all time.

As for the rest of the novel Sriram's love story does not take off for me. As a character in the book he is rather weak, not of strong convictions, except  when it comes to possessing Bharati. Maybe that was how RKN wanted him to be as well. The girl seems unsure about everything except what Gandhiji tells her. In fact they both are rather undeveloped with some gaps in their lives. This is a novel where the backdrop of the freedom struggle works for me but the characters and their motives do not. Unfortunately much of the wonderful humour that RKN is known for appeared forced especially, when Sriram. And to me Gandhiji's wonderful philosophy stands out as RKN puts it in Gandhiji's words.

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