‘Mr. Sampath’ is a subtle satire on many idiosyncrasies of mid-20th century India. The novel is based in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi, where R.K. Narayan centers most of his novels and other shorter fiction. The three main institutions of the newly Independent India that R.K. Narayan ridicules are the free press, the film industry, especially in South India, and the landlord and tenant system prevailing in the country in the developing industrial age. Each will be tackled under the respective headings:
The Free Press
Mr. Sampath is the printer of Malgudi who decides to print Srinivas’ newsletter titled ‘The Banner’. Narayan criticizes the brazenness of editors of such newspapers who, in the name of free speech, publish articles and news items which, most of the time, do not tell the whole truth and further which only show one side of the story, that is, the editor’s side. In this novel, Srinivas shows himself as a pugnacious editor who keeps hitting out at all and sundry in the nation, world, and Malgudi. Mr. Sampath does not seem to mind his rude remarks in the newsletter and keeps printing copies weekly. Srinivas felt that he was emancipating society when he was only fueling his ego. In his arrogance, he does not read the letters delivered to him by mail. Many pretentious editors in Narayan’s time probably used to do the same thing and preferred to show the reading audience only their version of the world’s events. We notice a subtle exaggeration in the brazenness of Srinivas as the editor, which is typical of R.K. Narayan’s satirical style. Power fueled Srinivas’ head to such an extent that he almost incurred the wrath of the municipality. If Mr. Sampath had not suddenly stopped printing ‘The Banner’, Srinivas’ family would have either been ruined or lost a breadwinner in the name of egotism. Narayan notes that printers like Mr. Sampath tend to print any material indiscriminately without understanding the repercussions of such an act on the public. That the printer of Malgudi’s heart was not on the job is evident because he readily took to the direction and production of a new motion picture. Also, Srinivas tends to ridicule the tenants of the shanty in which he himself lives. He tears apart the rapid urbanization and industrialization of Malgudi that is seen in this text in the rise of slum-dwelling migrant workers from around the nation. Instead of finding solutions to the issue, he angers the municipality of Malgudi, creating a comical situation where they keep calling him by letter to their office, but he keeps refusing to go.
The Film Industry of South India
The second part of the novel is dedicated to the shenanigans of Mr. Sampath, Mr. Somu, Sohan Lal, and De Mello in the production and direction of a South Indian film based on a Hindu mythological plot which they felt had never been done before. Srinivas, through the critical eyes of the perceptive R.K. Narayan in a highly comical form of satire and irony, chronicles the way most films were made and handled in India during that time. According to Narayan, most South Indian films of that era were based on Hindu myths and stories. They were the movies that sold, and though the producers of the film state that they want to make a difference in society with their film, they give into the usual practice of producing a film based on the incineration of Lord Kama, the god of love by the Third Eye of Lord Shiva. The irony is that what better story to script than one where the God of Love himself is eliminated, who usually is the very one who creates romances fit for the big screen in the first place! Srinivas is roped in to script the story and the film’s screenplay, which he does under duress, only to realize that the producers ultimately change every line he wrote. What the idealistic Srinivas thought would edify the audience turns out to be something out of his worst nightmare. Other evils of the film industry are introduced in the text, like money laundering, extramarital affairs, obscenities in the film, and bribing. Mr. Sampath starts a rollicking affair with Shanti, the film’s lead actress, whom he calls his ‘cousin’. Bankers are made to work in the film’s art department while artists like Ravi have to work in the accounts department! Srinivas watches all this in mute bewilderment highlighting the other relevant aspect of the film industry, which is the withholding of money and rights of the writer of the story and screenplay of the film. Neither is Srinivas paid before nor after the whole film collapses due to the monstrous behaviour of Ravi on the last day of the shoot. Mr. Sampath forgets that once he was a mere printer of Malgudi and now rides in a fancy car, wears expensive clothing, dons rings made of gold, and openly defies his marital vows with his poor wife by having an extramarital affair with the voluptuous Shanti. Extravagance and pompousness are the highlights of the film industry, according to R.K. Narayan, which he highlights in this text. The cacophony of the whole film is highlighted when Mr. Sampath, in rage, dons the role of Lord Shiva instead of the actual lead actor on the last day of the shooting. He does so because the original lead actor felt he was being ill-treated by being forced to remain in one position too long in the heat and without refreshment while all unwanted attention was being paid to the glamorous Shanti. Narayan thereby notes that in the film industry, it does not matter who is the lead actor because all they show is a mixed bag of romance, dance, courtship, and comic relief which they consider art or entertainment. Srinivas is disgusted by the actions of Mr. Sampath, but to his dismay, the artist Ravi takes the whole charade greatly to heart. He can’t stand to see Shanti, his love, in the arms of Mr. Sampath, and so ruins the shoot. The carelessness on the part of De Mello in keeping the reels of the film in the open where anyone as deranged as Ravi could destroy them highlights the penny-wise pound foolishness of the whole production house who thought themselves to be professionals. The last shoot is hilarious and a page-turner worthy of applause because in it, R.K. Narayan truly brings out the hypocrisy of the film industry.
The Land-Tenant System
The landlord of Ravi and Srinivas is a very difficult old man who ill-treats his tenants from whom he extracts exorbitant sums to bank in the post office safe. He is cruel, heartless, and is interested only in profits. He behaves like a scourge to the tenants but paradoxically acts like a holy man or a sanyasi who can read out the sacred Sanskrit texts. In this sub-plot of the text, R.K. Narayan highlights the evils of the age-old land-tenant system, which had now morphed into a new form with the development of slums in upcoming industrial areas like Malgudi. Through all his novels, Narayan will gradually chronicle the development of an industrialized society under the many schemes of the government. Narayan, in these texts, shows a tug of war between the old orthodox society and the new, not seeming to be able to take a stand on which side he is on. Through sub-plots such as these, Narayan highlights the changing look of India through the varied descriptions of Malgudi and its residents over time. The landlord of the novel ‘Mr. Sampath’ takes advantage of the new migrant laborers and the many unemployed or lower middle-class individuals like Srinivas and Ravi who have come to Malgudi to seek a better future for their families. Due to the laxity in population control, Ravi’s father and mother had managed to fill his shanty with numerous children, all younger and entirely dependent on the eldest breadwinner Ravi. The landlord is not ready to set up a tap each for every family he houses but is more than willing to fund part of Mr. Sampath’s film at 12% interest and even attends the first day or take of the film in a suit and turban, not looking like a sanyasi at all in the eyes of Srinivas. The landlord inconveniences his tenants regarding the taps, the poor look of the shanties, the garbage, the pests, and the lack of privacy that the families living there incur. He meets his just deserts when he dies, probably due to a cricket ball hitting him on the head as it crashes through his one-roomed hovel. The cricket ball was most probably batted by Srinivas’ son Ramu, which Srinivas does not really want to admit to himself. The irony of the cricket ball was that the boys still didn’t want to consider the match a ‘draw’ despite the death. People like the landlord of this novel leave a lot of property from which the original heir can earn a sum that can make him live comfortably for the rest of his life. Immediately after his sudden demise, his many children come forward to claim ownership which Srinivas notices caustically.
Other Topics of Note
Orthodox Behavior of the Characters
In this tug-of-war between urbanization and traditionalism, a usual theme in R.K. Narayan’s texts, we see a few of the characters acting on the basis of their beliefs, which at times seems odd to a modern reader. Casteism was still an issue in India at the time of the writing of this novel, and Srinivas’ wife shows her overprotective upbringing when she feels terribly uncomfortable traveling by train alone with her son to Malgudi to meet her husband. She apparently, according to her value system, does not want to get polluted by those of the lower castes. Srinivas disregards her but is faced in the novel numerous times with this aspect of her personality where she does not want to eat food cooked from a restaurant or which is not cooked in their own home or without her having her ritual bath. She even refuses to go shopping for her vegetables and insists that a man, namely her husband escort her as it is unseemly for a woman to go outdoors on her own. The landlord, too, shows his orthodox and backward mentality in instances regarding caste, religion, modern habits, and social norms, which Srinivas time and again ridicules but which, unlike his wife, the landlord does not seem to understand. Women were mainly bidden to remain indoors away from a male’s gaze and to never interact with male guests. When Mr. Sampath introduces his timid wife to Srinivas on their first meeting, the poor woman is tongue-tied and rushes quickly back into the kitchen, leaving Srinivas fascinated and, at the same time, astonished that so lively a man like Mr. Sampath could have married such a silent woman. Sexism is evident, which R.K. Narayan, in his own comic way, tries to maneuver, making the scenes seem very realistic and poignant for study.
There is one part in the text where there is a discrepancy. We are repeatedly told in the text that the landlord set up only one tap for the entire shanty. Yet, in one particular instance, Srinivas enters his home after a tiring day at the printing works to wash his face under the tap in his house. That is impossible because the communal tap was in the courtyard! Was R.K. Narayan trying to indicate a ‘tub’ of water collected by the wife of Srinivas rather than a ‘tap’?
Thus, ‘Mr. Sampath’ is a story of greed, egoism, art, and obsession told with the humor which characterizes all of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi’s novels. In the bargain, let not the reader forget the many philosophical themes highlighted in the text through the thoughts and musings of Srinivas, who imitates the mind and soul of R.K. Narayan himself in pondering over the being that is man: where is he heading and how to set free from all constraints and yet not to be a sanyasi. Living in the real world with its liveliness is what all of R.K. Narayan’s main characters seek, yet being apart and observant of their actions, nature, the world, and its many paradoxes. The spirit of R.K. Narayan continues to live in characters like Srinivas, who philosophize to edify but are misrepresented by self-serving individuals like Mr. Sampath.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this novel titled ‘Mr. Sampath’ penned by my all-time favorite writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more of his books and short stories soon. If you are interested in reading the summary of the novel, Mr. Sampath, you can check out the same here. If you are interested in reading my other analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check out the same here. If you are interested in reading some multiple award-winning Indian social issue fiction novels, then you can check out my novels titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and review more Indian fiction in the coming days.
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