‘Grandmother’s Tale’ was published in 1992 by the Grand Old Man of Malgudi, R.K. Narayan. ‘Grandmother’s Tale’ is part biography and part fictional account of the life of R.K. Narayan’s maternal great-grandmother, who had a rather extraordinary life compared to the other women matriarchs in Narayan’s family. Single-handedly, Bala, the great-grandmother in question, managed to search the whole of the Southern region of India during the time of the British East India Company days for her absconding husband and does indeed manage to find him and then start life afresh. When this story was written, Viswa, age 10, and Bala, age 7, were deemed fit to be married by their parents, and the ceremonies were conducted. Bala became the child-bride of Viswa, and though the couple were curious about each other, they were still not allowed to interact. ‘Grandmother’s Tale’, however, centers on the disappearance of Viswa from his South Indian village and the adventure Bala experienced in the process. The fictional biography is one of the shortest books penned by R.K. Narayan. The Indian Thought Publication edition of this book contains suitable and pleasing illustrations of the whole story by R.K. Narayan’s famous and illustrious political cartoonist brother, R.K. Laxman. The story of Bala is a tale of orthodoxy, intrigue, and adventure and takes up the favorite theme of most of Narayan’s fiction, which is that of the sanyasi mindset.
Bala As a Child Bride
The story starts with Narayan coaxing his maternal grandmother to narrate the tale of his great-maternal grandmother, which she is keen on doing as she is proud of her brave and ingenious mother. Despite being illiterate, Bala manages to seek and find her wayward sanyasi-oriented husband, which endears her both to Narayan and the grandmother. However, the grandmother is only ready to narrate the tale after the child R.K. Narayan has finished reciting his tables, the Tamil alphabet, singing a few ridiculous folk songs, and after the grandmother, herself, had finished her chores, especially that of pottering around in her garden and looking into the genuine concerns of her neighbors. While eating betel nut, Narayan’s grandmother tells her tale while Narayan takes notes of the same, especially as the tale was continuously repeated as the years went by and as he grew older.
Bala and Viswa are married to each other. Bala, at first, is not pleased by the order given to her by her father that she had to marry Viswa since she was already of marriageable age. She is irritated because her girlfriends tease and taunt her. On the day of the marriage, she is placed next to her to-be husband, decked up in bridal finery, and is married off to him in a traditional ceremony. She was his child bride, and though this is a serious topic, Narayan treats this social issue normally, as a regular affair and almost in a comic manner, bringing out the absurdity of two children being married to each other at such a tender and impressionable age. Bala and Viswa live separately in their own parental homes. Their parents will only officially conduct Bala into her in-law’s home the day Bala enters womanhood or starts getting her periods. Sadly, Bala and Viswa are hardly allowed to see each other during that time, though each is very curious about the other. During this process, Bala notices a dark patch under the ear of Viswa which he claims will bring him luck and make him a king one day.
Viswa is keen on meeting his child-wife at least once every day. However, poor Bala is prohibited from even emerging from the deeper recesses of the typical South Indian home and is usually relegated to the backyard, where she washes the household clothes at the well. The wall around her courtyard and backyard is quite high, and the area surrounding it is filthy and strewn with garbage, refuse, and animal and human excreta. Viswa, in desperation, to see his wife, would always hoist himself on some stones up the wall to peep over it and converse briefly with his child-wife. One day, however, Viswa’s comical head appears over the wall to bid a sort of hesitant adieu to Bala, telling her he was going with some pilgrims to a faraway place. When further inquired of the same by his wife, he says no more, but leaves, which is the last anyone in the village sees or hears of Viswa.
Bala is heartbroken, and more than heartbroken, she is made a mockery of in the village. People start treating her worse than they would usually treat a real widow or prostitute, though only through their gossip and social ostracism. When Bala grows a bit older, and there is still no sign of Viswa, the orthodox and narrow-minded villagers demand that she starts dressing in white like a traditional Hindu widow and stop wearing her marriage thali and vermillion mark. They send the temple pundit to tell her mother of the same and to disgrace Bala for no fault of her own. That was the last straw which made Bala, at once with a bit of jewelry, money, and clothing in a bundle, make off to seek and find her long lost absconding husband. And that is the last anyone sees of Bala or hears of her.
Bala in Poona
Narayan’s grandmother nor anyone in the family knows where Bala travelled after that day. All they know is that one fine day she landed up in Poona, penniless and unaware of the Marathi language. She looked different from all the Marathi folk, but that did not discourage her from seeking Viswa. One day while miraculously sitting by the gate post of a large bungalow or mansion, she sees a whiskered man entering the mansion seated on a horse. He and Bala look at each other for a moment, and then he passes. Bala continues to sit at the gate post and sees him continuously enter and leave the place. He never fails to take a good look at her. Bala suspects at once that this individual’s face resembled Viswa’s comical one as seen by her over her backyard wall in her village.
The supposed Maratha tries through his servants to drive Bala away, but she manages to reach inside his home through her determination and ingenious tactics. She wins the heart of Surma, the Maratha individual’s Marathi wife, namely Surma. Surma is gentle, delicate, and soft-spoken, unlike Bala, who is quite aggressive, forthright, blunt, and a go-getter. Surma reveals to Bala that her ‘Bhat-ji- or husband was a wandering penniless pilgrim who happened one day by her wealthy father’s jewelry store in Poona to ask for a job. The elderly man took to the wanderer and not only gave him a job but also his confidence. Surma ultimately marries Bhat, and after his father-in-law dies, he inherits the property. It was Surma’s idea to get Bhat to grow handlebar whiskers.
Bala now realizes that it indeed was Viswa who was the Bhat-ji of Surma. She accuses and alerts Bhat of the same, which he initially denies vehemently but then ultimately confesses the truth privately to Bala. Indeed, he was Viswa and had dubiously married Surma without telling her he already had a South Indian first wife. Bala is now determined to take Viswa home to her village. Viswa pleads with her not to separate him from Surma or allow him to keep both her and Surma as wives. Bala refuses to comply though she does not let him know her thought processes on the same. She hatches a conniving plan to rid Viswa of Surma forever and return to South India.
On the pretext of Bhat-ji’s ill health, Bala coaxes Surma to travel in palanquins to a temple in the South to seek god’s blessings. They all three manage to set out together. They come to a tank with a deep pool in the middle of the journey and wander about. As Surma and Bhat-ji head back to their palanquins, they find Bala missing from their party. Indeed, Bala is neck down in the middle of the pool, shivering as it were to death. She threatened to drown herself or remain there till she died of the freezing cold until Surma gave back to her Bhat-ji, who actually was Viswa, her husband. Surma is at a loss for words. Viswa now denounced is horror-stricken about the whole situation and pleads with Bala to come out of the pool. Bala refuses and unfolds to the distressed Surma the woeful events which forced Bala, a young woman, to travel alone throughout South and West India to seek a wayward husband who was living it up in style in Poona, forgetting his responsibilities of old. Surma, Viswa, and Bala keep up this tug-of-war until Surma, under duress, leaves in her palanquin back to Poona. She leaves Viswa and Bala alone to return as man and wife to their old lives. Bala is victorious.
During this part of the story, Narayan admonishes Bala’s actions to his grandmother, saying that it was not fair of her to have treated the innocent Surma so cruelly. His grandmother, in turn, takes up for her mother, saying that what need she have feared or been guilty of when what she was fighting for was indeed her own rights as the first wife of Viswa. R.K. Narayan is silenced into listening to the story from then onward.
Viswa is first heartbroken about losing Surma, but the dominating Bala gets into action immediately. They start residing in the same rest house, and Bala gets a barber to shave off Viswa’s moustache to a clean-shaven bald pate typical of South Indian middle-aged men of his time. They then travel back to their home village, probably after a couple of years or months, which Narayan’s grandmother is unsure of.
Bala’s Life After Finding Viswa
When Bala and Viswa reach their village, they find everything from the houses, landmarks, people, etc., to be different. Bala’s elderly mother had passed away after Bala’s disappearance, while Viswa’s parents had left the village long ago without mentioning where they were shifting to. Thus, Bala and Viswa land up probably after a span of 20 years of absence in their village but are neither recognized by anyone nor do they recognize anyone else themselves – they have to start life all over again.
They visit the village temple to pay obeisance to the temple god for fulfilling Bala’s wish to return her wayward husband to her. They shift from their village to a place in South India R.K. Narayan presumes to be Kumbakonam and start life afresh. Bala gives birth to five children, only one of them being a boy who ultimately becomes a medical practitioner working for the British. Bala helps Viswa to start his jewelry business again, and he makes a great profit. One by one, their children grow up, marry, and leave the family home. Bala and Viswa now lead a retired life, and Viswa, too, has stopped his jewelry business at this time.
However, due to age, Bala becomes obese, slow, and languid. This is quite a remarkable difference from her days on the move searching for Viswa. She, therefore, employs a woman and her young daughter to cook and take care of the house for her. Bala is very pleased with the mother-daughter duo, but R.K. Narayan’s mother mentions they are wicked individuals. They apparently came from a village that practiced black magic and were people who liked putting spells on other individuals. The mother and daughter managed to take complete charge of the house, which was not liked by the grown-up children of the family, especially Swaminathan, the only son of Bala and Viswa.
One day, Bala fell terribly ill. Nothing could revive her, not even her own son’s professional ministrations. Viswa was left a widow and distraught because of the death of his dynamic wife. Swaminathan took over the charge of Viswa but wanted nothing to do with the wicked mother-daughter duo.
Swaminathan shifted his father to his family home where Viswa led a comfortable life tended to by Swaminathan’s housewife and her children. Viswa, however, like most elderly gentlemen, grew too sentimental, proud, and difficult over the months. He was of the exaggerated opinion that his son was not giving him the due respect as the head of the family. He was displeased with the fact that Swaminathan would always deposit the salary of the month with his wife and not with Viswa.
One fine day the good medical practitioner in a rush, deposited his salary with his wife as he had to attend to some important people. At that time, Viswa was pottering around in the garden. On returning and finding out what had happened yet again, like his days of old with Bala, he packed up his few belongings and returned to his old home in Kumbakonam. He continued to live there with the wicked mother-daughter duo, who were most displeased to have him in the house again.
Swaminathan was not pleased that his foolish father had gone off to stay with the unpleasant pair in the old house. What stumped him further was when in due time, he and his siblings were informed by his half-crazed father that he had married the 17-year-old daughter of the wicked cook! This was, of course, Viswa’s third marriage.
Obviously, the wicked mother wanted to gain Viswa’s share of the property and the ownership of Viswa’s few expensive jewels from his time as a jeweler. Therefore, she lavished all her love on the old man and indulged his every wish, especially feeding him with delicacies at meal times. Viswa enjoyed the attention and the companionship of his young wife. However, the mother and daughter started taunting and nagging him, respectively, about signing important documents concerning property issues, which Viswa refused every time when asked.
Then, the wicked mother and daughter started to ill-treat Viswa by not tending to him, mentally torturing him, and even going to the extent of starving him. Viswa felt that living with them was like hell, but his pride kept him from returning to his son.
The wicked mother, one fine day, decided to go back to her village to seek the advice of a black magician. She asked the shaman to give her something which could control the mind of Viswa and make him give in to her daughter’s wishes readily. The black magician called her the next day after hearing her tale and gave her some white pills. He told her to mix the same in Viswa’s food or drink, after which he would be a willing slave to his wife. The wicked mother then set up a grand feast for Viswa and her daughter, serving delicacy after delicacy on their banana plates. She mixed the odious pills in an almond milk drink which the greedy Viswa drank readily.
That was the end of him. He died on the spot, and Swaminathan and the other siblings, through a hush-up process, managed to hide the fact from the public that the sudden death of their wayward father was due to homicide. The mother-daughter duo escaped into oblivion without being jailed. R.K. Narayan was most perplexed by the fact that the police were not called, which upset his grandmother, who, in an anti-climatical manner, stated bluntly that she was telling him all she knew, and he could take it or leave it!
This was the typical comical anti-climax to R.K. Narayan’s shocking tale of his perpetually absconding and wayward great-grandfather’s death. Narayan was not sure about most of the other details of the tale, but at the end of the text mentions the home where he grew up. However, he also mentions this in detail in his autobiography ‘My Days’. Thus ends ‘Grandmother’s Tale’ with Bala resting in peace with the fact that she secured back her self-respect and pride despite all the hurdles and obstacles involved.
I enjoyed re-reading and summarizing this semi-autobiographical story titled ‘Grandmother’s Tale’ by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories in the coming days. If you are interested in reading my analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check out the same here. If you are interested in reading my book analysis of R.K. Narayan’s autobiography My Days, then you can check that out here. If you want to read some multiple award-winning Indian social issue fiction, you can check out my two novels, Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to re-read, analyze and review more novels and short stories by Indian fiction writers soon.
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