‘Hungry Child’ is a fictional South Indian short story penned by one of the first great writers of English Indian fiction, namely, R.K. Narayan. R.K. Narayan is known as the ‘Grand Old Man of Malgudi’. He has penned numerous short stories mostly based in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. ‘Hungry Child’ is one of his later stories in the short story collection famously known worldwide as Malgudi Days. The story is based on the character Raman, a sly, dispassionate, perverted, and a rather suggestive personality who also appears in R.K. Narayan’s novel The Painter of Signs, published in 1976. The Painter of Signs is the novel about Raman, who led a quiet life full of self-conceit who later fell in love with a certain ‘Daisy’ who is part of the Government’s Birth Control and Family Planning policy. Daisy goes from village to village, highlighting the importance of family planning. Raman is sexually besotted by her and follows her. Raman is sexually intimate with Daisy, highlighted even here in ‘Hungry Child’. In the author’s time frame, Daisy has ditched Raman, and now Raman is in a depressive state. He comes to the Expo ’77-78 to pass his time and see the sights to gain some amusement to avoid dwelling on his failed love affair. He meets a boy child Gopu, who is around seven years old and has lost his parents in the Expo. On the spur of the moment, Raman decides to adopt Gopu as a rebound to get at Daisy.
Daisy is spoken or mentioned in many places here in this story. The mention of her name indicates that Raman is affected by Daisy’s betrayal and is trying to seek anything and everything possible to get her out of his mind. He thinks that by looking after Gopu, he will successfully quell his heartburn for Daisy. Gopu, on the other hand, is a spoilt child who loves to eat and enjoy himself. He hates school because he is mischievous and gets physically punished for it. Also, he doesn’t seem like a child who has even an iota of discipline in his life. We observe how he behaves with Raman at Expo ’77-78. He eats a lot and makes Raman gorge on his food, even though Raman does not feel like eating because of his depressive state. Gopu eats the following:
- Two strawberry cotton candies
- A Chocolate ice-cream
- Several chocolates
Gopu is overeating for Raman’s comfort, yet we notice that Raman does not feel like grudging the boy because he is lenient and wants to win his favor. This could have been disastrous because Gopu would have become sick trying to eat so much food. Secondly, Gopu, in his pain, could have wanted the attention of his parents, which would have put Raman in a tight situation. Without a second thought, Raman has picked up Gopu from the Central Office without telling the clerk the truth that he was not the parent of Gopu. Raman could have been caught and put in jail for child abduction or kidnapping. However, luck was on Raman’s side. Towards the end of the story, Gopu himself spots his family and heads to them, forgetting Raman. Raman is highly careless and desperate to distract himself in any way to get his mind off Daisy. Gopu is nothing but a rebound of sorts for Raman. Raman tries to gain the favor of Gopu through sweets, sweet words, and treats at the Expo. We notice Raman building castles in the air regarding Gopu acting like he already is his father. Raman’s dreams regarding Gopu are unrealistic, and the musings of a person speaking through a dream-like trance without a hint of reason. Raman is drifting through the shadows created by the Daisy affair and so intoxicated that he does not realize the problems he is putting himself and Gopu in.
The story focuses on every character mentioned in the text, which has abdicated their responsibilities. Raman, Gopu, the clerk in the Central Office, Gopu’s father, Gopu’s whole family, Daisy, Raman’s aunt all seem to have broken away with their ties and have taken a break from their responsibilities. Raman’s abdication is the most severe because he could have gotten an innocent boy of seven into trouble. Raman’s great apathy to life is indicated in every line of the text.
Raman is self-conceited and has a perverted way of looking at life. However, his love for the child Gopu is pure as can be. He muses over the fact that he must have at last got Daisy pregnant, for which she will have to suffer greatly. After all, she was working to promote birth control for India, and a pregnant, unmarried woman does not make good family planning advocacy material. Raman muses over this thought that along with Gopu, that child or seed in Daisy’s womb is his closest offspring. Raman is self-conceited but doing quite well for just a poster or sign painter. Here we can see the beauty of Narayan’s prose oozing out the ink on the page. Narayan has a subtle way of bringing out the depths of his characters which is seen here in this story ‘Hungry Child’. The title is apt because not only is Gopu a hungry child, but even Raman is a perverted and sexually ‘hungry child’ waiting for his amour to return.
Gopu eats a lot and is very naughty. Only a perverted soul could tolerate the boy, and Raman is such a perverted soul. Gopu is a nuisance, but Raman is a distant observer of the boy’s actions without casting his opinion upon the child. Raman is, therefore, a very lax and cold personage or parent. He amuses the boy and keeps him happy at the Expo. Raman lived when children were kidnapped very easily and thought he could easily abduct Gopu. Raman does not like to lie to the boy, but he has to do so to win his favor and stop the child from overeating.
R.K. Narayan has a knack for mentioning old characters from his novels in his short stories. Even here in ‘Hungry Child’, he mentions a few people with Raman and Daisy. They play important roles in his Malgudi books. One such person is Varma, the owner of the Boardless, where the middle class and lower-middle-class intelligentsia gathered to gossip after lunch or during tea time. Raman does not like to go to the Boardless because he feels the gang that patronizes it is snobbish. There is also a mention of MCC and Dr. Krishna or Krishen, who tends to the patients of Malgudi by writing very long prescriptions.
Raman adores the child Gopu and his love for him is escalated towards the end of the story when he sees Gopu returning to his family and getting a thorough beating from his father. The family had to miss the bus to go back to their village due to Gopu’s absence, and so the father thrashes him violently. Raman cannot bear to see the boy in pain, and so makes a move. Some theorists could also venture to say that Raman seeing the stoutness and strength of the father, was scared that he too would get a beating for almost kidnapping his only son and so makes a hasty retreat out of Gopu’s life. Gopu seems to be a very passive and suggestible lad to have allowed Raman to lead him on in such away. We don’t get seven-year-old’s like that these days, so the behavior of Gopu can not exactly fit in well with our notions of the self-assured behavior of a seven-year-old South Indian boy.
There is the factor regarding the 1970’s. The 1970’s was a very epoch-making era in India’s contemporary history. It was known as the Family Planning era and the era of its very remarkable Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. R.K. Narayan was not very happy with the state of affairs during the Indira Gandhi era and was mainly against the forced Family Planning that was taking place in many areas around that time. Therefore, he criticizes the policy in this story and other stories written during his later years. Daisy is shown in a very misogynistic light, and we as feminists usually are confused about our feelings towards the character of Daisy. The vile and dispassionate Raman is like an anti-hero we tolerate because of his dark comedy and his big troubles. Gopu is restored to his rightful parents, and Raman drifts off into the mist of Malgudi. Raman is bigoted but comic. He is emotional but unreasonable. Undoubtedly, he did not know the first thing about what it meant to be a father but still is ready to take up the challenge of rearing Gopu. Raman’s make-believe romanticized dream world comes to an end. So does our adventure in this very novel short-story titled the ‘Hungry Child’.
I enjoyed analyzing R.K. Narayan’s short-story ‘Hungry Child’. If you want to know more about me, check out my memoir collection Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. My all-time favorite writer is R.K. Narayan, and I hope to review more of his works in the coming days. If you are looking for a study analysis on R.K. Narayan’s autobiography My Days, click the link and check it out.
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