‘A Willing Slave’ is a short story about an elderly simpleton woman called Thayi but known as Ayah, who is willing to quit her almost full-time job to care for her husband. The short story tells in a simplistic and unpretentious way about how Ayah has always been an enslaved person in her life in many ways. She likes to be so and does not seem to know better. Themes such as patriarchy, economic disparity, subtle comedy, and the overall theme of female subjugation are highlighted in ‘A Willing Slave’ penned by Indian writer R.K. Narayan, also known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi. The story is realistic and relatable, describing how Ayah is treated with disrespect and even overlooked by the people interacting with her.
Ayah is the most underpaid or overlooked domestic staff or maid of a wealthy family who cares for a little girl called Radha. Radha plays with Ayah, and their friendship is depicted in the story. Ayah is the slave of Radha and gives in to her every whim if it is reasonable. The only element Ayah uses to frighten the child is the fictional character of the ‘Old Fellow’ or, as we in India, call him the ‘Buda Man’. One day, Ayah goes on her usual holiday and does not return till after three days. When she does return, it is only to take a final leave of Radha and her family because Ayah’s husband or ‘Old Fellow’ has returned, and she has to look after him, indeed, as his slave or as his wife. Thus we see that Ayah was destined by her terrible circumstances and poor mental faculties to remain a slave all her life.
This short story titled ‘A Willing Slave’ penned by Narayan is part of the Lawley Street collection of his famous short story collection ‘Malgudi Days’. This short story takes place in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. R. K. Narayan portrays Lawley Street in Malgudi as an upcoming residential area housing the rich and famous. Ayah is the slow-witted and very naive housemaid whose primary duty is to care for the children of a wealthy family in Lawley Street till they are old enough to fend for themselves. She has never aged mentally and has the intellect of a six-year-old. She is ill-treated by the mistress of her home and is even grudged her once in three months holiday to return to her village.
The ill-treatment and disregard for Ayah show the way the rich and influential of a typical South-Indian town behaves with their domestic servants. Even though Ayah has served in the family for many years, she is treated poorly and neglected. We notice this when the mistress of the house gives Ayah a dressing down for not coming back to work on time. Ayah’s own family members, especially her town ruffian sons, don’t treat her with dignity or respect and take all her earnings from her. We see in the text, therefore, a disparity between the way a simple and illiterate woman is treated and the way men get to have their way.
The climax of this tale is when the husband of Ayah appears on the scene after years. He does not even feel it necessary to inform Ayah about his arrival and simply takes up residence in his village home as if it were the most ordinary thing to do after having been absent for so many years. He is a husband who probably sent money home from his Ceylon Tea Garden salary, but that is subtly not indicated in the text by Narayan. There is, therefore, every indication to believe that the husband or the ‘Old Fellow’ had neglected his wife, was an absentee husband, and now wanted his wife back simply because societal norms demanded that a wife should look after her husband, even if he had not shown the same dedication to the marriage. Ayah was to cook and care for ‘The Old Fellow’ like a slave, which she always tended to adopt as her lot in life, something which she found pleasure in doing.
Patriarchy is highlighted in this text when we note that Ayah works hard in Radha’s home all her life, but her earnings and ultimate loyalty were towards her two sons and her husband. Ayah was a simpleton; she was uneducated and, in her ignorance, thought of schools to be prisons. She tended to be a partial pest in the house with the other servants. This put her in disfavor with them. R.K. Narayan highlights that Ayah had several secondary duties, which were to harass several servants and domestic staff like:
- The Baker’s Boy
- The Newspaper Man
- The Washing Boy
- The Other Servants
- The Home Tutor
- All servants who were latecomers
She seems to either be too obsessed with her own dedication to her job or that she was a troublesome woman who let out her childlike frustration on the lower sections of society. That Ayah worked full time despite receiving only three sarees a year and two meals a day indicates that she loved her job. Her other primary job, which she was paid for, is to care for the children of the house, primarily the youngest one called Radha.
Radha’s equation with Ayah is of total dependence and selfish love, which is noticed among very young children. Ayah is devoted to Radha, caring for her more than even the mother of the four-year-old child. However, when Ayah was leaving the house to return to the village forever, Radha refused to bid Ayah a proper farewell which hurt Ayah, probably the only wound she had ever received in her life of never-ending servitude. Radha, fearing the fictional tyrant ‘The Old Fellow’, refuses to emerge from the kitchen to bid her beloved Ayah farewell. Ayah cared for Radha like a friend as well as a mother. She plays with the child, tells her stories, feeds her, clothes her, and does everything to keep the child happy.
Ayah is foolish enough to think that her husband has returned to her because he loves her. She acts like a newly wedded bride by being embarrassed and shy of her husband even though she is elderly. This indicates that from the early days of their marriage, Ayah had never experienced the happiness of a proper marital life because of their poverty. The innocence of Ayah is evident not only in her behavior with her husband but also in the way she plays with Radha.
R.K. Narayan indicates the simple pleasurable joys of playing with children and like children in India. In a pre-AI and pre-Smartphone world, the simple pleasures of playing ‘make-believe’ and a form of ‘house-house’ or ‘train-train’ is very realistic and credibly described in the text. R.K. Narayan, having lived in a family of several younger siblings and had a daughter of his own by the time this story was penned was undoubtedly aware of how children in India played. The story ends with Ayah moving away from the kitchen where Radha is hiding, never to return. Narayan, though usually is full of subtle humor with a great bit of satire and irony, brings out the tender side of emotions in some of his stories, as in this one titled ‘A Willing Slave.’
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to read and analyze more short stories by R.K. Narayan in the coming days. If you are interested in reading more of my analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check them out here. If you want to read some award-winning Indian women-centric novels, you can check out my novels titled Nirmala; The Mud Blossom, or Amina: The Silent One. I hope to re-read and review more fiction works by Indian writers in the coming days.
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