‘Emden’ refers literally to a German warship that shelled Madras in 1916. Since then, the term indicates anyone who is formidable and ruthless in personality. Jayaraj, the photo framer and the young children of Malgudi, used to call Rao the oldest man in Malgudi, Emden, when he was much younger and working in the Excise Department of the government. Rao had a formidable and massive personality, was quick to anger, and very violent with all and sundry. He used to thrash children, pull up school principals, take bribes while in service, and collect a lot of money. Apparently, Rao collected and earned so much money that he could relax during his retirement and yet supply the needs of his immediate family, who were living with him in the house he built in Ratnapuri beyond Vinayak Street. Jayaraj envies Rao just the way he used to fear him many years ago. Rao has changed since his youth and has become a very elderly man. The present story chronicles his life after his eightieth birthday when he had become one of the oldest residents of Malgudi. Malgudi is the fictional South Indian town created by R.K. Narayan, one of India’s best contemporary writers and the creator of Malgudi novels and short stories. In this short story titled ‘Emden’, Narayan does a part character sketch and part narrative story on the retired life of Rao while he resided in the right wing of his house away from the rest of his family of twenty members. He enjoys a strict life of habit and protocol mainly because he is decently well off and does not have to earn in his old age. However, he reads his old diary, which he had written fifty-one years ago. He realizes that on that same date, fifty-one years hence, he had beaten up a dancing girl with whom he had an affair. Feeling remorse, he decides to visit the place and sets off on a journey into the past.
R.K. Narayan has a talent for writing detailed but beautifully crafted and unpretentious character sketches of ordinary everyday people, especially those who lived in South India during the pre-Independence and post-Independence periods. He adds a lot of visual, olfactory, auditory, and other imageries to create an accurate picture of the middle-class Indian’s feelings, beliefs, acts and conducts. In this story titled ‘Emden’, the story is centered around the quintessential retired Malgudi South Indian government worker simply called Rao who has set ways of conducting himself and how he seems to get stronger day by day. Like most government officials in the post-Independence period, however, Rao has earned a lot of money by saving, raiding places selling alcohol, and through bribes, of course. He got into such a muddle regarding the fixes he took during the heydays of the bootlegging period that he had to leave the service. However, he spreads the false news that he had taken ‘voluntary retirement’ when in reality he got into so much trouble with the excise department that he was asked to leave. One gets a sense of the corruption during the Congress era, especially since R.K. Narayan loved to take a dig at the inefficient bureaucracy and the Congress government, which governed India most of the twentieth century. The theme ridiculed here in ‘Emden’ is the bootlegging or the 1960s bootlegging period in India related to alcohol consumption and trading. We, therefore, get an idea that Rao has not earned his money through honest means, which colors our analysis of his character. It prepares us for the fact that he was probably ruthless in all his dealings with humankind. That is why it surprises us when Rao decides to make amends with a former dancing girl in the latter part of this story.
Before the dancing girl, we are taken by Narayan through the main highlights of Rao’s retired life. He is living, as it were, a spartan life. After a relaxing siesta, he drinks his large tumbler of coffee at 3:00 pm in the afternoon. The coffee and the morning paper is brought to him on a teapoy by a member of the family who speaks nothing much to him but probably is doing this service as a token of love, service to an elderly family member, respect, because Rao was too old to look after himself, with the hope of inheriting his money, or perhaps Rao had been kind to this person in the past. Rao reads the morning paper in the afternoon after everyone else has read it. He prefers to read the articles about religious prayer sessions and religious discussions in the nearest big city Madras which is near Malgudi. He appreciates reading about politicians and war makers because they are the same as in the past, nothing new about their behavior. Advertisements do not interest him either. The ad makers were only interested in making some poor soul waste his money and where the death column was concerned since he recognized no one in that column all the better.
It was not like Rao to read the newspaper thoroughly. He read the newspaper like some poets read poetry in a half-reading and half-musing manner, indicating that he had enough time to spare to muse over the things he read. Rao, therefore, was not a hassled man and was taking life literally and metaphorically one step at a time. Narayan’s descriptions of Rao drinking his large tumbler of South Indian coffee, walking with an umbrella crooked on his thin arm, cleaning his grimy glasses with a silk handkerchief tied to the arm of his easy chair indicates a perfect eye for detail and a good understanding of the Indian middle-class psychology and daily habits. Narayan pens Rao’s character sketch and activities as if the man were living and breathing right in front of him. The human side of Rao is hard to hate, although, in his heyday, he had been a vicious person. The once-mighty ‘Emden’ called Rao the ‘Grand-Master’ of Malgudi after his newspaper reading goes for a wash, dresses and for two hours from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm goes for a walk down the left-hand corner Vinayak Street, Kabir Lane, and Market Road, all full of familiar scenes, shops, and establishments of Malgudi that is well known to all readers of the Malgudi novels and short-story collections like:
- Jagan Sweets shop
- Mani’s cycle repair shop
- Chettiar’s stores
- Jayaraj the photo-framer’s store
These characters and their locales, along with their establishments, take the reader on the tour of Malgudi through its various novels and short-story collections like ‘The Vendor of Sweets’, ‘A Tiger for Malgudi’, ‘Malgudi Days’, ‘The Painter of Signs’, and ‘Swami and Friends’. Through the steady and snail-paced walk of Rao or Emden, we pace through the hubbub of the various streets of Malgudi. The author obviously can’t get the fictional world out of his imagination and tends to work well in this make-believe South-Indian town. Like all elderly retired people, Rao ambles as he is aware that if he falls, he will break a bone, probably the hip bone, and then would not be able to walk again and would never be let out by his family members onto the streets. He seems to fear the wrath and anger of his family members more than the fact that if he fell, he could get seriously hurt. One tends to be impatient with the elderly. But if the relatives of Rao were anything like him when he was younger, no wonder he would be frightened about their viewpoints on his going out.
Rao was the ‘Grand-Master’ of the town of Malgudi or the oldest man there. Many did not exactly know what his age was. Some said it was above eighty years, while others stated he could even have been one hundred five to one hundred ten years old. Some people in Malgudi respected him because of his age and delicate state of health. Some envied him because of his wealth, while others criticized him behind his back as he took his walk down the three major lanes of Malgudi near his nineteenth-century-looking home. Kabir Street and Vinayak Street were where the elite and upper middle classes stayed, and Market Road was a busy shopping center. Though Rao lived in the elite part of Malgudi, he seems to prefer the hustle and bustle of the Market Road. So though the road took him to shops and salesmen who irritated him, he still loved to walk that way. In fact, if you read the Malgudi books closely, you realize that indeed Vinayak Street and the place named Ratnapuri was a good investment on the part of the visionary Rao who realized that the region would be prosperous and so in the early part of the twentieth century bought a place there. Vinayak Street, in fact, was an upcoming apartment complex with amenities representative of developing urban India that Narayan speaks about in his later writings.
Rao has set ways with a set schedule regarding how he should and could manage his life. However, he has a past that he wants to hide from his family members and the government. So, he keeps his title deeds, will, papers, and diaries, about thirty of them in all, locked in an almirah or a cupboard used as a wardrobe and safe cabinet, placing the key to this cabinet in another cabinet and the key of that in another. Rao is a secretive man and does not impart secrets of his past to the reader. In fact, there is a tendency to think that as an octogenarian, it is possible that even Rao did not remember the truth behind his ‘voluntary retirement’. Notice in the text that he shows memory lapses with regard to the names of the people in his family, the names of his grandchildren who were once his favorites, the name of the dancing girls whom he used to frequent, the name and whereabouts of his first assistant, the name of his trusted lawyer and so on. However, he is an exact man who has grown soft and tender-hearted over the years. That is why while going through a fifty-one-year-old diary of his past, he feels remorse reading that he once beat up a dancing girl or a prostitute named simply ‘S’ to hide her identity. He tries to distance himself from his youthful arrogance. He cannot believe or rather, he does not want to think that it was he who had so severely and mercilessly beaten up a dancing girl who gave him so much pleasure that he used to stay till midnight at her residence in one of the by lanes of Market Road a poor street called Gokulam.
This is the central theme of the latter part of Rao or Emden’s story. Rao is remorseful and curious about who ‘S’ could be. He recalls no dancing girl he knew as ‘S’ but is interested enough to think she might still be living in the house on Gokulam Street and decides to visit her. Now that his wives are no longer in the picture and Rao is safe under the mantle of an almost respectable old age, he gets ready to go to Gokulam to meet ‘S’. It is sheer insanity to see his eagerness to meet his old flame because if he himself was ancient, ‘S’ herself could have been dead or very old herself, and probably not even living at Gokulam. But Rao is determined to visit her with a peace present and a greeting of their old days spent together in each other’s company. On his way there, he does many things which he usually never did regularly:
- He buys jalebi worth three rupees at Jagan Sweet Shop.
- He buys a soap cake of Sandalwood, apparently recalling that ‘S’ loved that fragrance along with jasmine. Sandalwood also is one of the most common beauty products found and used abundantly in South India.
- He walks into the inner lanes of Market Street to reach Gokulam.
- He sets out from his house quite late after spending a long time reading his fifty-one-year-old diary.
- He gets lost in the by-lanes.
- He cannot find the home of ‘S’ and feels that the place has been torn down because no one present seems to remember the road, at least all who were living at that time.
- He finds it taxing to return home again in the dark.
Everyone who passed Rao on his way to Gokulam feels he should not be walking such a long distance out on his own. This indicates the homely spirit of Malgudi and the concern the common man had for the elderly. Rao, however, is stubborn and wishes to take the risk of falling or getting stuck outside in the dark just so that he could find ‘S’. Unable to find the right road or the coconut tree landmark and the well in front of the dancing girl’s house, he decides to go back defeated. He looks a spectacle, shuffling his feet along Market Road hastily trying to make his way out of the many by lanes. Everyone passing by stands and stares, but none venture to help him, probably remembering his vicious nature when in his heydays. Narayan creates a sense of suspense in our minds regarding whether Rao would find his mysterious ‘S’. But most of R.K. Narayan’s stories in the later period of his life are realistic, and this story is no different. So, instead of finding a person from the past, Rao accidentally steps on a mongrel dog who scares the old man making him drop his sweetmeats. The dog carries off the sweetmeats, grateful to his attacker. The elderly Rao resignedly feels that it was better because probably ‘S’ was no longer alive and had reincarnated.
The last part of the story regarding the reincarnation of ‘S’ is related to the boring article in Rao’s favorite column of the newspaper regarding reincarnation and Karma. He found this article difficult to read because of his past life and because he knows too much already on the topic. He is again reminded of the subject when the mongrel carries off the sweetmeats. Thus, R.K. Narayan ends Rao’s story on an anti-climactic suspenseful note. We are not told whether Rao returns to his home safe and sound. We are left in a cliff-hanger moment which makes us smile at the realistic but ironic ending of this tale of the grand-master of Malgudi called Emden. I shall end the analysis with the following minor points:
- Rao managed to live a simple life only in his old age and so, according to him, had survived into a ripe old age.
- Rao was a polygamist under the superstition that he had the planet Mars in his horoscope or astrology chart, and so all his wives were dying. R.K. Narayan is prone to ridiculing astrologers in his books and short stories.
- Although Rao was preserving his diaries and documents of his past with so much care, he basically did not want the papers and books to fall into the hands of any inquisitive reader. He tried to burn the documents and books, which makes the reader want to laugh at the scruples of the elderly and those who have secrets.
- Rao tries to distance himself from the fact that he beat up ‘S’ and then went that same night to use her. He is in denial about his youth and was probably in a relationship with ‘S’ when he was already married with children.
- Rao looks down upon the menial workers like cobblers and the poor.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Emden’ penned by R.K. Narayan, one of the first Indians to have his novels and short stories published abroad in the English language. If you want to read my analysis of R.K. Narayan’s autobiography titled My Days, you can check it out here. If you wish to read my award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories of the contemporary era, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to review and analyze more writings of R.K. Narayan soon.
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