‘Lawley Road’ was published in 1967 and centers on the Talkative Man or T.M. of the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The short story appears in the bestselling Indian short story collection ‘Malgudi Days’ penned by Indian writer R.K. Narayan who was one of the first Indian writers to write novels in the English language. He is the creator of Malgudi and is known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi. ‘Lawley Road’ is one of the many roads mentioned by Narayan in his novels and short stories about Malgudi. It is one of the developing roads of Malgudi, housing the rich and famous individuals of the area. In this short story, the Municipal Chairman of Malgudi, on the occasion of the Independence of India in the year 1947, thinks of making changes akin to the grand occasion like most municipal workers and ministers of the country. One of his ideas is to bring down a twenty-foot statue of a British colonizer, for which he seeks the help of the famous gossiper and busy body of Malgudi, namely T.M. or the Talkative Man.
The year is 1947, and India gains her Independence on the 15th of August. The town of Malgudi’s municipality comes alive on this occasion where otherwise, they never really cared for the sanitation and hygiene of the town. On the 15th of August, they do their best to bring a sense of cleanliness and sanitation to Malgudi, with the national Tricolor being hoisted in different parts of the town. After the momentous event, the Municipal Chairman of Malgudi takes it into his mind to refashion Malgudi into a truly nationalized town to give homage to the Congress leaders and other Freedom fighters and non-violent workers of India who brought about the country’s Independence. He and his otherwise inactive Municipality start changing the names of roads, parks, areas, etc. to names like Gandhi Road, Hamara Hindustan Park, Nehru Road, Netaji Subash Bose Road, et al. The subtle humor is evident when different Municipal Council members decide to rename three or even four roads, areas or parks to the same name of either Gandhi Road, Gandhi Nagar or Nehru Park thus creating such confusion in the town that postal letters and telegrams remain undelivered, and people are unable to direct guests to their homes or even indicate to others where they really live! One of the other bright ideas was to bring down the Sir Fredrick Lawley statue at the corner of Lawley Extension and Market Road to make a statement that foreign rulers’ statues would not be tolerated in an Independent and free India. With the help of the Talkative Man, who narrates this whole incident, they manage to blast the base of the statue, and then T.M., with a lot of difficulties, inconvenience, and mental torture, manages to cart the huge statue to his home on Kabir Street. The statue occupies T.M.’s whole home to such an extent that to make room for it, he had to send his wife and children to the village until he could sell it off as scrap metal. Due to his advertising the fact in an upcoming newspaper that he worked for, many heritage structures sent letters of complaint to the Municipality of Malgudi indicating that they wanted the statue reinstated because the individual Sir Fredrick was a ruler who was sympathetic to the plight of the Indians and even died saving the people of Malgudi from floods. Even the national government forces the hand of the Municipality to reinstate the statue. The Municipal Chairman finds himself in a difficult and sticky situation because the Government is clear that if the statue is not reinstated, the Malgudi Municipality Council would be immediately dissolved, and new elections would take place at once. Also, the haughty and adamant Talkative Man was not willing to part with the statue asking for a huge amount as a selling price for the statue or for the Municipality to at least pay him the transport charges for the statue, which T.M. took so much of trouble to remove from its original spot. A compromise is reached when after several non-violent Satyagraha demonstrations and picketing, it is decided that the corrupt Municipal Chairman from his own personal funds would buy the statue from T.M. and make the Talkative Man’s home in Kabir Lane to be the new home of the statue. He converts the home into a park and decides to call it Lawley Extension.
Themes of the corruption in the bureaucracy of even newly Independent India, the social issues of India, the politics of nationalism post-Independence, subtle comedy, and the irony of exaggerated patriotism are what the short story ‘Lawley Road’ is all about. It analyzes how a peaceful town can turn into a chaotic mess all because of the whims and fancies of a Municipality that takes it upon itself to curry favor with the sentiments of the age. R.K. Narayan’s short stories always focus on the socialization of his characters, who drive the plot forward. In this short story, the Malgudi Municipality is trying to find a niche for itself according to the sentiments of the time by making the otherwise quite Anglicized Malgudi into a town that has names of roads, areas, parks all named after national heroes. The Municipal Chairman feels that by doing so, he will be reckoned to have done his part in creating a nationalized identity for himself and the Municipality in 1947. It is ironic in the sense that the real duties of sanitation, cleanliness, hygiene, etc., are sidelined for the greater glory of a more Swadeshi Malgudi. Thus, R.K. Narayan ridicules the political system of his times and their priorities. The irony is that instead of creating peace and harmony in Malgudi, things come to blows, confusion, and violence with no one able to really know where to send a letter or to direct someone to a particular address.
The Talkative Man, or T.M., is a local gossiper of the town of Malgudi and R.K. Narayan manages to insert him into most of his short stories and novels, creating a blend of adventure and humor which enchants the reader of his fiction. T.M. is an otherwise well-off personality of Kabir Road or Kabir Street who lives off an inheritance gifted to him but spends his time collecting news to send to an upcountry newspaper for a minuscule price. This reflects R.K. Narayan’s own life as mentioned in his autobiography ‘My Days’ where he did the same to run his family and keep body and soul together. However, because T.M. was well off, he managed to spend most of his time gossiping and was on friendly terms with most people in Malgudi, especially in this case, the Municipal Chairman himself.
T.M. decides on the suggestion of the Chairman to take Sir Frederick Lawley’s statue for himself to sell as scrap metal. The avarice of T.M. makes him do so, even though he had to go through a trying time to get the statue off its pedestal and then cart it home on several bullock carts, which paints a humorous image in our minds of the same. The picture of Sir Frederick sleeping on his back with his legs sticking out of the door of T.M.’s modest home on Kabir Street adds to the humor of the satirical tale. The reason for the bringing down of the statue was because the Municipality was incompetent enough to think that the statue was of a tyrant of Malgudi Colonial History during the time of the barbaric and cruel Warren Hastings. However, the case was otherwise, as the real Sir Frederick Lawley was a gentle soul who almost founded the town of Malgudi and looked after its citizens with fatherly affection. This highlights the incompetence of the Municipality and the haste it made in bringing down a heritage structure of a man worthy of dignity.
The false pride and avarice of the upper-middle-class T.M. is evident in the text when he refuses to part with the statue despite the many demonstrations, picketing, non-violent agitations, and slogan shouting that took place outside his home. R.K. Narayan wishes to highlight the eccentric scrupulousness of the Indian middle class when it comes to their newly acquired property which he does in most of his stories and novels. This scrupulousness of the Talkative Man adds humor to the text. It highlights how comic non-violent satyagraha can be to a middle-class South Indian individual who wants a good bargain for his booty. Satyagraha can bring down the British Empire, but not the avarice and greed of a shrewd middle-class Indian like the Talkative Man! However, because of the clamor against him regarding the statue, T.M. feels cornered in a tight spot and is willing to sell the statue, but only if he is compensated or paid properly enough for the same. T.M. brings out the corruption of the Municipal Chairman regarding the blankets scandal of the pre-Independence period which coaxes the corrupt and callous government worker to convert Kabir Lane into a national park dedicated to the legacy of Sir Frederick Lawley. This indicates that corruption is a major part of the circulatory system of the Indian bureaucracy even during the time of Mahatma Gandhi, which seems unthinkable to the modern generation of readers of R.K. Narayan’s text, but that is exactly what the writer is trying to indicate.
The irony and satire constitute a significant part of R.K. Narayan’s prose, including in novel form, and is present here in this short story titled ‘Lawley Road’. The major satirical aspect of this text, apart from corruption, is that certain historical structures during the 20th century in India were normally ignored until they were highlighted in the news and then found that they were heritage structures. R.K. Narayan, therefore, shows the power of the news item in creating turmoil in the India of Nehru’s time. The other major ironical factor is that while the Malgudi Municipality had started to change names of Anglicized roads into nationalized roads, because of the ‘discovery’ as it were of the patriotism of Sir Frederick, they were shameless enough under pressure to finally rename the street of Kabir Lane to an anglicized name of Lawley Street indicating that Sir Lawley being British was more a freedom hero than probably anyone else in Malgudi! The story thus ends on a heightened note of satire, ensuring that the Talkative Man earns more money than he ever imagined.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by R.K. Narayan titled ‘Lawley Road’. I hope to re-read and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s short stories soon. If you are interested in reading more of my reviews of R.K. Narayan’s fiction, you can check out the same here. If you were helped by this blog post and want to read more about my life, you can check out my memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra or Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read and review more Indian short stories soon.
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