‘Naga’ by R. K. Narayan: Short Story Analysis
R. K. Narayan, also known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi, is one of the first Indian writers to have written novels, short stories, essays, and so forth in the English language. He wrote his stories based on a fictional South Indian town called Malgudi. I have reviewed and analyzed many novels of R. K. Narayan in the past. ‘Naga’ is one of his serious short stories which he is most remembered for. ‘Naga’ in Hindi means ‘Snake’, and R. K. Narayan in this short story tells the tale of a snake charmer, his son, their pet monkey, and of course, their pet cobra. This story is simple to read, written to perfection, and is very enchanting. We are simply drawn into the story by the powerful prose of R. K. Narayan. The story tells the tale of how the father (a snake charmer), falls head over heels in lust, more than love, for a married woman. One fine day he abandons his only son, taking away the son’s pet monkey, and leaving behind a fangless ‘Naga’ or cobra in its usual basket.
The narrative is simple to follow and very direct. Narayan mentions right at the beginning of the story that the cobra to the snake charmer was nothing more than just an earthworm. This is because the snake charmer after capturing the snake used to knock off the fangs with a stone. Since this story was written at a time in early post-independence India, there are a lot of indelicate scenes detailing animal cruelty. But that was and is the life of most snake charmers in India, even to this day. The scene of how ‘Rama’ the monkey is caught, starved, bullied, cajoled, and then taught how to entertain an audience, is typical of the life of many entertainers who entertained the populace of India with their tame monkeys. Now the incidence of such animal tamers is negligible in urban India and fewer in number even in rural India. This is due to the laws passed against animal cruelty, that no animals should be reared or abused for entertainment purposes, and their strict implementation. However, in R. K. Narayan’s time, snakes, cobras, elephants, monkeys, bears, horses, and so forth, were used to entertain audiences in the busy streets of India. There are many references in the story to Indian words, religion, and superstitions, which is explained in detail by Narayan. This adds color to the otherwise sad and ironic story. There is mention of the King of the Demons Ravana, and how the God of the Monkeys Lord Hanuman, burnt Ravana’s capital with his tail. There is mention of Lord Rama, the master of Lord Hanuman, who is the main god and protagonist of the Indian epic ‘The Ramayana’. These and many other cultural aspects are focused upon by R. K. Narayan which adds color, intricacy, and cultural elements to the story titled ‘Naga’. These elements have enchanted many international writers including the famous Graham Greene who loved to read Narayan’s works. He became his mentor and introduced his books to the Western world. Notice in this story the plight of ‘Naga’ the cobra. The title of the story is also dedicated to him, and he is depicted as a sorrowful, depressed, and morose soul. He has been so abused by the snake charmer and his son that even when he is set free, he always manages to return to his basket. Naga represents here:
- The sexual desire of the snake charmer for the married woman whom he ultimately runs away with.
- It represents the snake charmer’s son himself who is unable to shake off the responsibility he has to his father’s profession as well as the duty he feels to be the caretaker of Naga.
- The poverty and abuse the poor in society face even in post-Independence India.
- Indifference to anything, even freedom, and despondency towards making a change.
One can’t help but feel for the poor cobra and his terrible existence. The monkey called ‘Rama’ on the other hand represents other aspects of this story:
- The bountiful future of plenty.
- The blessings of the gods and goddesses in the form of money, food, and other pleasures.
- Carnal desires.
- Sensationalism which hides the underlying pain of the monkey as well as the snake charmer’s son.
I will not be mentioning many of the cultural elements in the story because R. K. Narayan has explained all of them already. That is his style and many readers and fans of his have appreciated the pains he takes to bring the real ‘India’ out to foreigners. Rama the monkey is wanted by the snake charmer’s son in this story. It is the son who asks for Rama but it is the father who runs away with the monkey. Rama was truly a blessing for the father and son, but the father fell into bad company and abandoned the very son who had given him luck. The son’s mother is dead, most probably due to hardship and hunger. The boy has not reconciled himself with that fact and so tends to cry whenever anyone mentions her. The awful reality of poverty in post-Independence India is shown especially in this story when a woman begs a man hawking rice cakes to loan the abandoned boy some rice cakes. The hawker is rude to her and declares that there were many other unfortunate boys in the vicinity, and if he had to do it for one, he would have to do the same thing for others, thus going bankrupt. Still, for a measly price, he sells two rice cakes or idlis to the son who polishes them off in hunger. Notice how in the story, the boy feels less pain on knowing that his father has abandoned him, but feels terrible because his monkey was taken away from him. This shows how poverty can make a person desperate, stonehearted, realistic, practical, and very frank. Poverty is also shown in the story where the topic arose about the slum where the snake charmer and his son stayed. They stayed in a ramshackle hut without a roof. They lived in a slum which the municipality had tried to tear down. There is a mention made sarcastically in this story, but true, that when VIPs came to the area the slum dwellers were ordered to stay out of sight. Therefore, poverty can be considered to be the main theme of the story. After his father leaves him the boy takes over his snake charmer’s business. He talks to Naga and tells him that he is his master from now on. We can see the affinity and affection the boy had for Naga than for any other person the boy came in contact with. The boy can’t bear to see Naga getting killed by a Kite and rescues Naga. This is indicative of the boy not wanting to let go of loyal friends, his childhood days, and childhood companions. The son takes it seriously that Naga was ‘a part of the family’ but ironically, his father never did feel the same. At the end of the story, the boy seems to be permanently stuck with Naga until death does them part. He wants to ‘break free’ of his past life as a snake charmer and monkey tamer but Naga refuses to leave him. In other words, the past refuses to leave him. The boy wants to become a railway porter, thus, abandoning an illusionary and superstitious world of the ‘old way’ with the modern ‘new way’. The topic of Naga and snakes, in general, are central to the story. His father mentions at the beginning of the story, the many snakes from the ancient scriptures who were powerful beings. However, this was in India’s past. The reality now was the image of a fangless cobra that looked and acted more like a lazy earthworm than a serpent. Naga is the symbol of India’s present, a poor image of former days of glory. The father is likened to old India that was rich while the vulnerable son is likened to new India that is abandoned like a ‘child without parents’ – the very image of woe and pity.
R. K. Narayan is my favorite writer of all time. I love to analyze his books, stories, and essays. I have mentioned it in both my bookish memoirs The Reclusive Writer and Reader of Bandra and Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, then you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you all this week!
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