‘Mr. Sampath’ was published in 1949 by R.K. Narayan, one of the three major Indian fiction authors of the mid-20th century, the other two being Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. ‘Mr. Sampath’ is the novel of Malgudi’s printer and big talker who dons many caps to earn fame, reputation, and money. The novel is set in the first decade of India’s independence in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi, created by R.K. Narayan. R.K. Narayan, as mentioned in his autobiography ‘My Days’, also like Srinivas, the main character of this novel, started singlehandedly a newsletter or journal in India during the time of the Second World War. The difficulties he encountered could be the major force behind the writing of ‘Mr. Sampath’ later on in his literary career.
The novel begins at the desk of the editor of a weekly newsletter titled ‘The Banner’. This newsletter was printed by Mr. Sampath at his own printing works. However, he was not the newsletter’s editor; Srinivas was the editor and only contributor of ‘The Banner’. Srinivas was a middling gentleman belonging to a middle-class family who did not reside in Malgudi. His elder brother was a lawyer and was disturbed when he saw his younger brother, Srinivas, idle his time and not looking after his family. The elder brother nagged Srinivas to start an occupation of his own, to look after his own affairs, in answer to which Srinivas left his ancestral home to head to Malgudi with the idea of starting ‘The Banner’.
He does not find it easy to get any printer in Malgudi to print his newsletter until he happens upon Mr. Sampath at a restaurant. Mr. Sampath, to the idealistic Srinivas, seems to be a man of great importance in the town since he could manage to sweet talk everyone there onto his side. He manages to convince Srinivas to use his printing works for printing ‘The Banner’, which Srinivas proceeds to do. Srinivas, however, tends to wonder about the mysterious curtain in the printing works which hid the other workers at Mr. Sampath’s establishment from view. He tends to believe day by day that Mr. Sampath was putting on a pretense, and there was no one behind the curtain, it was only Mr. Sampath who was singlehandedly managing the printing works. He realizes this very dramatically the day the newsletter is not printed on time, and Mr. Sampath declares to him that supposedly the workers were on strike. When Srinivas, out of irresistible curiosity, checks behind the curtain, he sees no one at work but the vivacious and pleasing Mr. Sampath.
After that day, no newsletter is printed, and Srinivas is yet again worried about his financial status. He coaxes Mr. Sampath to get the press starting again, but the printer of Malgudi seems to have other ideas on his mind. Meanwhile, Srinivas has troubles of his own brewing, which deals with his family status. His wife and only son Ramu one day land up at the press. Both his wife and son accuse him for not having read his mail in which it was mentioned umpteen times that they were planning on leaving the ancestral home to reside with him in Malgudi. Srinivas is aghast to wonder what his traditional South Indian Hindu wife will think of the hovel in which he is currently residing. When she is shown the quarters, which is nothing more than a two-room shanty made up of bamboo, mud, and other unspecified material, she is disheartened but somehow makes the place a home for Srinivas and Ramu. The landlord of the hovel is a moneyed individual but a terrible miser who managed to turn his whole home into separate tiny hovels or shanties to house tenants who paid him an excellent sum. He, however, was an incorrigible landlord who never spent on the upkeep of the shanties and never even sought to put a tap in each hovel; instead, he kept only one tap for the entire complex, which proves to be a great scourge upon the residents. The landlord himself lived in a tiny room near the complex in a spartan way, calling himself a sanyasi, conducting his ablutions under the public tap for the poor, and eating nothing but cooked rice distributed free by the temple nearby.
The landlord takes to Srinivas, who manages to secure for himself the two-roomed hovel in which a previous tenant, a lonely bachelor, committed suicide. It was in this detestable place that Srinivas had to house his orthodox wife and his precocious but mischievous son Ramu. Meanwhile, the other domestic hurdle was that Srinivas’ elder brother wanted to know what had become of ‘The Banner’ and when it was to be printed again. Srinivas was at a loss for words where this was concerned. However, he somehow manages to please both his wife and landlord by spending quality time with the first and stuffing the latter with coffee and tiffin once in a while!
In the meantime, another subplot unfolds in this tale of art, comedy, and satire. The neighbor of Srinivas, namely a certain Ravi, confesses to Srinivas that he sought after a mysterious girl whom he met at a temple some time ago. He draws a magnificent sketch of her and shows it to Srinivas at the latter’s office. Srinivas is captured by the portrait done by the moody and melancholic Ravi. Srinivas thinks it remarkable that Ravi was such a fine artist and that he had to work as a banker for a heartless British tyrant because of poverty. Srinivas takes Ravi under his wing the day Ravi is dismissed from his work and promises him that he will secure a decent job for him soon. Ravi cares for nothing except to find the girl he loves and moans and mourns after her in a comical way. The landlord, on the other hand, sees Ravi as a potential groom for his favorite granddaughter, who was just a little girl at school. He persuades the troubled Srinivas to convince Ravi to marry the child. This matrimonial ambition comes to an end with the sudden death of the landlord because of a cricket accident.
Mr. Sampath has been all this while busy in the works. However, he was not busy working on getting the printing works started again but on starting a film-making company called ‘Sunrise Pictures’. He ropes Srinivas into this new and daring venture, and Srinivas, in turn, ropes Ravi into the same establishment as an art designer. Mr. Sampath and comical figures of only monetary worth like Mr. Somu, Mr. Sohan Lal, and De Mello started by swindling people the film company ‘Sunrise Pictures’ whose first venture was based on an old Hindu legend. The legend dealt with the incineration of Lord Kama, the god of love, by Lord Shiva. Mr. Sampath is directing the movie and somehow manages to get an actress to play the role of Goddess Parvathi, who shockingly looks exactly like the mysterious girl whom Ravi sought. However, she was not the same individual. Ravi, however, obviously thinks otherwise, which lands up being detrimental to the whole movie.
Mr. Sampath, on his part, starts having an affair with the lead actress whose name is actually Shanti. Srinivas looks at his obsession with Shanti with distaste, knowing very well that Mr. Sampath is a married man with many children to care for. Mr. Sampath, however, is not ashamed; indeed, he is boastful about his affair with Shanti, whom he calls his cousin, stating to Srinivas that he did not mind having two wives and caring for both and that he was doing nothing wrong in the bargain. Srinivas is aghast with this declaration and is further astonished when Mr. Sampath requests Srinivas not to let Ravi anywhere near Shanti, for he fears he might woo her. Mr. Sampath’s worst fear comes true partially. Ravi, on the last day of the shooting, goes berserk and creates a commotion. He seizes Shanti to escape the scene with her or to force her to accept him as her lover instead of Mr. Sampath. Mr. Sampath, playing the lead actor at this time, is tossed off the stage, and the electricity is cut off. Ravi injures Shanti, destroys the reels of the entire film, and ultimately goes completely mad. All this because he could not tolerate Shanti in the arms of Mr. Sampath.
Srinivas was a mute spectator in this scene. He himself was the writer of the screenplay and saw all of his and Mr. Sampath’s efforts go in vain on that last day. Srinivas thereafter cares for the invalid Ravi and starts ‘The Banner’ with the assistance of another printer who is more practical and logical than his earlier comrade Mr. Sampath. Shanti and Mr. Sampath flee to have a pre-nuptial honeymoon, but she ditches Mr. Sampath at a railway station. He takes this rejection very badly, even worse than the ruin of the movie. He returns to Malgudi to try and convince Srinivas to start ‘The Banner’ with him again, but Srinivas does not want to have any occupational dealings with Mr. Sampath ever again.
The novel ends with ‘The Banner’ up and ready again while Ravi is on his way to a special temple to be miraculously cured of his insanity. The elder brother of Srinivas is happy that the newsletter has restarted though he had to pay Srinivas a part of the latter’s ancestral inheritance to do so. Thus, a tale of mayhem, satire, and excellent subtle humor comes to an end. The mysterious girl’s identity is never solved, and Shanti returns home to Madras away from Mr. Sampath, while the landlord’s many descendants argue over the right of ownership of all the hovels and shanties. It is they who at last renovate the place in brick and mortar along with providing a tap for each family to the satisfaction of Srinivas’ wife, son, and Srinivas himself.
I enjoyed re-reading and summarizing this novel titled ‘Mr. Sampath’ by my favorite writer of all time R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read, summarize and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s shorter and longer prose in the coming days. If you are interested in reading more of my analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading some multiple award-winning Indian fiction, then you can check out my novels titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to re-read and analyze more Indian fiction books and short stories in the near future.
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