‘The Martyr’s Corner’ is a short story of the South Indian fictional town of Malgudi penned by R.K. Narayan, where an amateur snack seller loses his place of work because of a riot. Rama runs a makeshift snack corner between Market Road and the chemist’s shop lane. This place is directly in the path of the cinemagoers, so they and boot polish waifs or children frequent the snack sellers corner between 8:15 pm to 10:00 pm. R.K. Narayan using olfactory images describes the excellent snacks, primarily vegetarian, that Rama sells, which evokes in us sympathy for his cause. He earns a lot of money working for just two hours in the evening, earning ten rupees in an evening and three hundred rupees a month. According to the text, that is a sum that even graduates could not get in India in the post-Independence period. Reading the appetizing descriptions of R.K. Narayan, we feel one with the enterprising spirit of Rama. We in India like to frequent such snack sellers even today, especially those who do not know how to cook and need a cheap and readily available meal every day or at least once a day. However, like most R.K. Narayan stories about South India, he focuses on specific relevant social issues that create unpredictable consequences in people’s lives. Where Rama is concerned, because of a riot and a death, the political issues led him to forsake his spot and shift to another place. However, Rama could not get his earlier cinemagoer customers, so his earnings were depleted.
Apart from being a realistic fiction writer, R.K. Narayan is also a proficient writer of social issue fiction with a hint of satire in it. There is not much satire in this story apart from the self-assured behavior of Rama, thinking that his prosperity will last forever. Rama seems to be unaware that in India of R.K. Narayan’s time, anything could happen at any time. Rama’s spot became the memorial of a leader who was stabbed or killed in the riot, making a once excellent spot, though illegal, for selling snacks into a site for memorial stone and a place of pilgrimage. We notice the satire in the way R.K. Narayan mentions the way Rama used to carry his money safely in a cloth bag around his neck below his shirt. We also see the satire in how his wife used to take the cloth bag from around Rama’s neck and count the money greedily in haste, mentioning naively about the investments that had borne fruit. We also realize how simple and challenging their daily lives were, yet they prospered until the riots.
The other social issues highlighted through descriptions and minor character portrayals in this short story are:
- Child labor which was very predominant during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi era, is highlighted in this story through the minor characters of the boot-polish urchin boys who used to frequent Rama’s makeshift snack corner. He would feed them at a cheaper rate or at half-rations. Notice that he dislikes other people haggling with the urchin boot-polish boys. Still, he is not generous enough to give these boys a good meal because he was not ‘running a charity show’. The issue of child labor improved from the Rajiv Gandhi period in India.
- Unaccounted black money is what Rama was earning through his makeshift stall. Notice that he does not stay long at his spot because he does not pay taxes. In fact, it is owned by the municipality and not his. Therefore, the municipality gifts the land to the martyr or leader who died on that spot as a memorial shrine or stone in remembrance of him. Also, notice that he bribes the traffic policeman on that beat and a municipal peon or worker with a packet of his snacks to keep them away from making him pay for his keep or getting the necessary government papers for that plot. His haste in his work is because of the illegality of it. This is a problem with most places in India even today.
- Rama was aware that he was flaunting the hygiene and sanitation rules but still risked selling his snacks because of the money. Where regular rules for legal restaurant owners in India are concerned, there are mandatory rules to follow sanitary and hygiene standards, which Rama was escaping. Even to this day and age, most sellers like Rama spread many diseases through their unhygienic food, trays, oil, and water. Diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, and jaundice are usually spread in this manner, killing many people. However, as the text suggests, the authorities mostly ignore these lapses because the people of India seem to have robust immunity against water-borne and food-borne diseases.
- Where electricity was concerned when R.K. Narayan wrote this short story, road peddlers and makeshift stall owners needed to provide their own light through lanterns because of the erratic nature of the electricity supply. Even Rama complained about the amount of money he was spending just to give light to his corner for a mere two hours.
- Communal riots have been part and parcel of the way of life in India right from the pre-Independence period. It is not unusual to see riots flaring up between communities in different parts of the country, which escalates and is blown out of proportion to such an extent that it spreads to those places that have nothing to do with the origin of the riots. Even in this story, Rama sees in front of him a political issue about votes exacerbating into something so violent that he had to protect his very life by hiding under a culvert an opening in a sewage pipe that channels water from one area to another. During the communal riots at Rama’s spot, a person was stabbed. Passersby tried to convey to Rama to get out of their way; otherwise, there would be trouble. As we see from the text, people came out with knives. They started butchering people to such an extent that the police had to be called to restore order, and they used lathi-charge, tear gas, and then opened fire. This may sound very serious to a foreigner in a Westernized country. Where India is concerned, such situations are a regular occurrence. Note the satirical way Narayan mentions how a memorial stone was erected in Rama’s snack corner because of the blood shed there.
- When the riots started, the shops around Rama’s snack corner area were ordered by goons to be shut. Such a procedure in India is called a ‘bandh’. Bandhs can be called by the opposition parties or by local goons who have no good intentions in mind other than to have free reign over the property of those shop owners who disobey them and keep their shops open. Such shops are looted, or their occupants and owners killed, molested, or attacked brutally. A bandh took place in this short story called ‘The Martyr’s Corner’ when the riots broke out.
In this way, many social issues are highlighted in Narayan’s prose. Rama’s spot was taken over by the followers of the leader. Though Rama was brave enough to start working the next day, he was uprooted from his regular place, which had become ‘the Martyr’s Corner’. Rama’s earnings began to deplete till he was forced to give up his work and start waiting on tables in the Kohinoor restaurant. The story ends in yet another anti-climatical manner where Rama mentions to an angry customer to be gentle with him because he too was once a restaurant owner. This makes us as readers want to smile at the overly dramatic nature of Rama, who mourns for his old life of easy earnings. Anti-climaxes are also a regular feature of R.K. Narayan’s short stories set in Malgudi.
Coming lastly to the food served by Rama, one is taken through a descriptive orgy of the different people and their lifestyles who frequented Rama’s corner for his snacks which included the following:
- Jutka drivers who were riding little carriages which were pony driven. Even in R.K. Narayan’s time, many people right up to the last decade of the twentieth century still rode on jutkas. These drivers usually bought chappati.
- The boot-polish boys who were hungry but did not have enough money for a proper meal. They bought either dosai or chappati.
- There were beggars like blind beggars who brought their cash at the end of the day for some refreshment. Snack owners of small repute in India allow beggars to frequent their makeshift shops.
- A sly man who wanted to impress a prostitute who worked on that beat used to purchase various snacks to enamor her towards him. Rama did not like the man nor the prostitute, which shows his prudishness. Sometimes Narayan can be quite a prude. He also mentions that Rama did not appreciate selling his fare to women, especially not the women selling grass who could be the most troublesome of the lot.
- There were many wrestlers in ‘akharas’ in India. They were known to eat the best eggs. One wrestler frequented Rama’s makeshift corner to eat a perfect duck’s egg.
There is only one discrepancy in this story titled ‘The Martyr’s Corner’, which I want to highlight here. In the text, you may have noticed that Rama used to carry a load of all the details of his makeshift corner store to the spot on Market Road. Well, from all the items, it is not mentioned where he carried the stove for boiling the coffee and the aluminum pot for the chutney. Everything is mentioned in the story, from the tray full of edibles to the stool and lamp. Therefore, either the stove and pot were always kept at the spot permanently, or there is a discrepancy in the text. I hardly think there can be a discrepancy because many shopkeepers like Rama in India leave these two items, which are required on an everyday basis, tied up or under a tarpaulin cover at the place indicated. This indicates the absolute filthiness of the coffee and chutney served. Rama seems very enterprising but can be selfish, especially when he calls his competitor a ‘poor rat’ and when he is not charitable with the boot-polish boys. The story ends with Rama paying for his sins because of the gods’ envy. Otherwise, there was no reason why things could not have happened in another place down the Market Road and not right at Rama’s spot. Therefore, we are left with the coincidence of the whole situation of Rama’s earnings and the riot in mind.
I really enjoyed analyzing this short story titled ‘The Martyr’s Corner’ by R.K. Narayan, the ‘Grand Old Man of Malgudi. If you want to read my analysis of his memoir or autobiography called My Days, you can read it here. If you wish to read award-winning LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to read and review more of R.K. Narayan’s works in the coming days.
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