‘Leela’s Friend’ is a realistic social issue story where appearances are deceptive, and prejudices against the lower castes come to fruition in this short story from the Lawley Road collection. ‘Leela’s Friend’ is taken from the famous short-story collection ‘Malgudi Days’, which analyzes how a poor helpful servant or housekeeper is framed for having stolen a golden chain from a five-year-old girl. The story penned by Indian writer R.K. Narayan tackles his opinions of the biased upper-middle-class Indians and how innocent children of the 20th century do not go by a person’s social standing, appearances or wealth, or caste before befriending them. Themes such as casteism, ill-treatment of the poor, the innocence of children, realistic depiction of children at play in the 20th century, and the irony of the phrase ‘guilty until proven innocent’ are some of the major themes tackled in this short story by R.K. Narayan.
Leela is a five-year-old girl who has no siblings and is looked after by her strict mother and office-going father. When a male housekeeper coincidently appears outside the gate of her father’s house just as Leela’s father is pondering over the servant issue, the decision is settled that they would keep Sidda as a house-help on Lawley Road. It was Leela who made the final, innocent, and heart-warming declaration on simply seeing the servant Sidda that she wished he would stay with them in their home. Sidda tends the garden, chops wood, runs errands, and looks after Leela. Thus, he becomes her devoted and trustworthy friend telling her tall tales about the moon, God in the sky, and other stories of the magical realm, the heavens, et al. He even is more than willing to play-act as if they were in a school and he was trying to learn writing the alphabet and drawing from her. He has a very genial disposition even though, because of his lower status in society, probably indicated by his economic situation or his caste, he is not treated well by Leela’s parents. One day, Leela’s mother finds a gold chain missing from Leela’s neck and confronts Sidda immediately before questioning Leela. Her accusation turns into a conviction when he runs away mysteriously from the scene, and Mr. Sivasanker, the father of Leela, goes to inform the theft to the police. Sidda is apprehended but continues to remain silent on the topic of the gold chain. Leela, his true friend even in such a situation, constantly takes his side while the adults condemn Sidda. This whole situation is made worse because Sidda had a criminal record and was notorious for stealing jewelry from children. He is kept in jail until he confesses. Later, it is found that Leela was the culprit, having dropped the gold chain in a tamarind pot in the kitchen. But the parents of Leela don’t scold the child but decide that even though Sidda was technically proven beyond a doubt to be ‘innocent’ because of his previous criminal record, they did not want to have anything more to do with him. Thus, a repentant criminal is not given another chance for a normal life, and Leela, an innocent child, loses her friend.
In this short story titled ‘Leela’s Friend’ by Indian writer R.K. Narayan, the story is set in the fictional South-Indian town of Malgudi in the upcoming and developing part of the town. Malgudi is a make-believe location conjured by Narayan to place his character-centric stories of typical middle-class life in newly independent India. In this story, Lawley Road is an upcoming area of Malgudi where normally, most of the ill-treatment of the lower castes and lower economic classes occurs. This we also notice in ‘A Willing Slave’ another short story penned by R.K. Narayan on the same theme and on the same road. Lawley Road houses the influential citizens of Malgudi. That is why Mr. Sivasanker gets immediate attention from the police inspector and that the so-called ‘thief’ is nabbed quicker than otherwise.
The theme of appearances versus reality is obvious in the way the parents of Leela and the police treat Sidda. They go by his appearance when they were appointing him as a servant or house-help of the house and when they had caught his theft. When they first appointed him as their house-help, it was based on their opinion of his external tidiness and his harmless behavior. By his vague description of the last place of his occupation, they should have realized that something was not all right but did not bother to clarify the situation then. When the theft or ‘so-called’ theft takes place, the parents of Leela first latch upon Sidda as the culprit because of his poor condition. His silence on the situation made them think that he was guilty. Actually, he was aware that the gold chain was missing the moment he took Leela out to buy sugar and was worried that the blame would fall on him because of his previous criminal record.
He, therefore, felt that however much he tried, he would not be able to convince Leela’s mother of his innocence and so runs away by distracting Leela to ask for sugar from her mother. When he is caught and brought back to the house by the police, he is humiliated for his earlier thefts, and his word is not relied upon. Through the information provided by Leela, we learn that her parents illtreat Sidda by:
- Making him sleep out of doors
- Not allowing him to sit with them on their chair
- Abusing him and being rough with him
To all appearances, Sidda seemed like a criminal when he was a repentant individual trying to turn a new leaf. Casteism is highlighted in most of R.K. Narayan’s short stories, and here too, we see the same highlighted through the story of Leela and her friend Sidda.
Another theme focused upon is the innocence of the child Leela who is not yet influenced by the cruel and harsh ways of the world and is sure to the core that Sidda was innocent. R.K. Narayan shows himself to be a good judge of the wayward and fickle mindset and memory of a child of Leela’s age when she is found out and she can’t:
- Place when she actually dropped the gold chain in the tamarind pot.
- Why did she do such a thing and
- Whether she really did it on purpose or as an error of naive judgement.
Due to her innocent negligence, Sidda is wrongly condemned for a crime he did not commit and is later on not allowed to continue in the same household as a house-help. A person who was the sole friend of a lonely five-year-old girl would be turned back into the world without a job or his old companion. The theme of innocent friendship between a child and an adult of a lower station in society is highlighted in this short story titled ‘Leela’s Friend’. The simple and realistic innocence of a kindergarten child growing up in the 20th century is highlighted in the text, especially the irony of the moon dust on the red ball and the so-called ‘following of the moon’. Leela trusts Sidda blindly, and her devotion to him is complete, even to the extent that she wishes to teach him and make him literate and give him a better life in her home. She is, however, scatter brained like most children of her age are. She is kind and has a clear conscience, ready to have a new chain rather than see Sidda leave her sight. She is someone who sees not the value in the ‘jewel’ but the value in the ‘jewel’ of the person Sidda.
The friendship of Leela and Sidda was genuine and true, but because of the social circumstances and situation, they were forced to separate from each other. This short story is indeed a case of the laxity in the dictum of the justice system, which states ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this Malgudi short story by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s short stories in the coming days. If you want to read more of my reviews and analyses on R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check them out on my blog here. If you were helped by this analysis and want to learn 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 short stories soon.
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