‘Under the Banyan Tree’ is an almost autobiographical allegorical short story penned by Indian writer R.K. Narayan which was published in 1985. The book of short stories where this story is contained is titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories’, which includes new stories, unpublished works, experimental pieces, as well as stories that were once published in old literary magazines and newsletters that the public had forgotten. R.K. Narayan placed ‘Under the Banyan Tree’ in this collection, one of the last books he published. The tale of the aged storyteller symbolizes R.K. Narayan’s advancing age and the fear that he would make a fool of himself due to the same at the peak of his literary career and fame. He, therefore, mentioned the following in print about this particular short story in this collection:
At the end (of this collection) is the story of an old Storyteller who concludes his career by taking a vow of silence for the rest of his life, realizing that a Storyteller must have the sense to know when to stop and not wait for others to tell him.R.K. Narayan (Introduction to the book ‘Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories’ February 21st, 1984)
Thus, it is evident that like Nambi, the aged storyteller in this short story, R.K. Narayan, too, felt that it was time his literary career almost came to a graceful halt without incurring a loss of demeanor, reputation, and self-respect. Being a great admirer of the younger generation, especially the youth of India, he felt it was time they carried on the bastion of good literature into the new India. What he had done for Indian literature written in English is phenomenal, and he wished now to retire like Nambi and let the young take over the reins of contemporary Indian literature. He indicates this in this story titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree’, which is fable-like and yet, very much based upon the ground realities of South-Indian life, which was what the stories of R.K. Narayan of Malgudi fame were like. What could be more realistic than for an aging man to lose his faculties and admit it? What also could be quite fable-like is for that same man, in an artistic stroke, to declare that his age failed him and not his willingness to enchant.
This is the title story of this collection of tales by R.K. Narayan. It concludes the collection with the story of a simple village in South India called Somal, where an aged storyteller named Nambi lived. Nambi seems to resemble R.K. Narayan, especially in relation to R.K. Narayan during his later career. Nambi, like R.K. Narayan, was getting older as the years went by, as mentioned in the short story titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree’. However, every new moon or at least twice a month, he used to entertain the simple village people of Somal with grandiose tales which he narrated to them under a banyan tree in front of the temple of the Mother goddess Ma Durga or Shakti where he resided at that time, but no one really knew how old he was or how he landed up being the storyteller of Somal. Yet, every time a lighted lamp was placed in the niche of the banyan tree, the villagers all knew that Nambi had a story to tell and would gather to listen to his tales of kings, palaces, fantastic adventures, villains, and moralistic endings. One day after many years of entertaining the villagers, Nambi begins a story but cannot continue with it for more than a few minutes. He stutters, hesitates, and recedes into a sort of uncomfortable silence. One by one, the villagers leave the banyan tree to the dismay of Nambi. He is afraid that the goddess has taken away his power. So, he meditates upon her the whole of the next day and once again begins the story in public. However, he stumbles again, cannot form the words in his mouth, and recedes into another silence. As the days pass, this hesitancy and silence in telling a tale due to Nambi’s old age worsens. Finally, one day, he calls all the villagers to the banyan tree to tell them a wonderful story. The villagers assume that their old storyteller has, at last, got his powers of eloquent speech back and returned to their places under the banyan tree that night. To their shock, the storyteller tells them once they settle down that, that was the last day he was going to speak as he had lost his power of storytelling. He takes it in his stride, saying that nothing was truly his, everything was the goddess; when she had something to say through him, he spoke; when she had nothing more to say, he was silent. He then spends the rest of his remaining life till he dies in one great long silence.
We see in this short story titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree’ that there are several indications of the life and works of R.K. Narayan. Here are a few of those indications analyzed in-depth, along with other themes of interest related to this story.
From the lifestyle choices of Nambi, the storyteller to the life choices of R.K. Narayan himself to how R.K. Narayan presented his stories and novels, all speak of frugality, humility, and simplicity. Nambi was a man who lived with a few upper pieces of cloth, a dhoti, and a broom to sweep the temple he resided in and his solitude. Likewise, when we read about the life of R.K. Narayan, especially as noted in the autobiography ‘My Days,’ we realize that he, too, lived all his life in the same simple and humble way; the author was not a materialistic man and never seemed to be crafty where business was concerned. His wants were but few and frugal like Nambi. His stories, too, are not grandiose epics, not never-ending sagas, and not symbolic works of art only to be appreciated by post-graduates in English literature. His novels and stories were unpretentious as himself. They were simple and easy to read and enjoyed by readers from any section of society, making them memorable for all time. Even in this story, Nambi, through simple plot twists and character changes, manages to enchant all the villagers, young and old in Somal, who feel the need for a sense of ‘awe’ in their drab, poor, and humdrum lives. R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories, too, are not grand adventures but are the everyday idiosyncrasies of the people of India seen through a comical and sometimes sentimental light making these stories believable, enjoyable, realistic, and worthy of being repeated over and over again. The human need to be told a story to carry on through their boring existence is evident in the eagerness with which the villagers listen to Nambi every time he narrates a story to them.
The Moody Artistic Temperament of Nambi
Nambi was a stereotypical moody artist whose social interactions were not all that up to general standards. Still, for the same reason, he was a thrill to listen to when he narrated a story under the banyan tree on a stone platform in front of the temple. Notice that even on regular occasions, when he conversed with the villagers under the banyan tree on ordinary days, then too according to his mood, he either listened to them or left their company abruptly or rudely to go to meditate. We don’t see this tendency in the behavior of R.K. Narayan as a personality, but as a writer, he is a person who crafts his novels and short stories according to his mood rather than the need of the hour or the urge for monetary returns. When he lost his wife early in life, he penned ‘The English Teacher’, his novel, which spoke about topics related to death, the afterlife, and death. When he wished to remember the last wishes of his maternal uncle, though not being that religious, he went on to pen his translation and version of ‘The Ramayana’ and ‘The Mahabharata’. When he wished to write a novel to critique a particular law during his time, he wrote the socially relevant ‘The Painter of Signs’. We see in all this his great moodiness as a creator of stories. Like Nambi, R.K. Narayan always tried to better himself and worked on his stories. The people of India immediately would identify themselves in his characters, making him an astute observer of humanity and a master at his craft.
Mundane Lives of Indians
Nambi was popular in the village of Somal because he told stories that took the villagers’ minds away from their everyday existence, giving them entertainment and a much more fulfilling form of recreation. This is what R.K. Narayan also achieved with his stories especially brightening the lives of the middle class and the poorer sections of society. Unlike his contemporaries Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, his stories were always centrally based on everyday life; the more mundane, the more unique he would portray it to be. His style or attitude of looking at everyday situations was unique and different. So also Nambi made the same stories of Emperor Asoka, King Dasaratha, and Emperor Vikram Aditya sound unique and different every time he told their same stories in a different style or manner. Nambi also, in this text, uses similar themes of story building, like villains, heroes, plot twists, the victory of good, et al., in such unique ways that it enchanted everyone in the village, making every story a new story.
Nambi, like R.K. Narayan, was a very practical individual. He knew the real cause of his aging and refused to give up his love for the Divine. In this story titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree,’ he continued to meditate on Ma Shakti or Durga even after he realized that she had somewhat silenced him forever. Instead of hate, he is gracious in accepting his old age, stating that when a person is young, he is a master of his mind. Still, when that same person grows old, the mind becomes his master and bids him what to do through arrogance, treachery, and blatant disobedience. Denial is futile; acceptance is the better action, even if it is the last. In this part of the text, R.K. Narayan, through Nambi, indicates that there is more to a human being than his mind, which contains his thoughts, emotions, memories, intelligence, etc. R.K. Narayan brings out his practical and logical side to the forefront in Nambi’s acceptance to stop telling his stories. However, he creates a masterstroke in the way or manner in which Nambi decides to maintain his permanent silence vow for the remaining portion of his life. In all of R.K. Narayan’s stories, we see this practicality. Even in his interviews with the press, his autobiography, and his own analysis of his everyday actions, one sees the same echoing of practical and logical thinking, which remains unfazed by bias and unmoved by the audacity of wicked prejudices. This practicality made it easy for authors like Grahame Greene, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham to value the literature of R.K. Narayan, and so do we.
The Masterstroke of Nambi
Nambi was always known to create fantastical stories which entertained and enthralled his listeners. His masterstroke was his last story that all came to listen to in spite of the fact that, for the last few turns, he had not been able to deliver at all. His last story was probably his greatest and the most truthful, that everybody like him will become old and be silenced one day and that yet he showed gratitude and awe to the Divine that gives such power to man and who takes it away without a moment’s hesitation. What is a jasmine without its scent and a lamp without its oil? asks Nambi, to which the answer is obvious – all artists like Nambi and R.K. Narayan are nothing without that spark that makes them alive and beacons of light to others; without it, one is rendered useless. One becomes a corpse, a dotard, or an idiot, as mentioned in the text by Nambi. That is why the old must accept their retirement with dignity, and the young should never waste their precious time but do good and create masterpieces worthy of a good life. This is indirectly a message of R.K. Narayan to the youth of India whom he admired and loved. Where Nambi was concerned, all those years in the past, he told stories that were parts of history, created by others or fantastical. Though short, this last story was the greatest because it was not an opiate against reality but a reality check for the villagers of Somal. In the text, we are told that the storyteller was the one who held the villagers in a sort of tranquil spell of enchantment, and while the whole country developed and was being reformed, they continued to remain backward. Nambi, through his retirement, sets them free from this enchantment, making them move on with life, face reality and obey the needs of the hour. He cunningly, not wanting to go down totally defeated, creates a mystery behind his silence, indicating that it was not his wish but the Divine silencing him. His later mute life would create a last remaining element of mystery. The village of Somal must forget the old ways of the past, respect the aged and catch up with the progress of society.
Other Points of Note
- On one occasion, when Nambi stumbled and receded into a long silence, everyone left him but a blacksmith Mari. Mari was an old friend of Nambi. This indicates that if R.K. Narayan continued stubbornly to fight his old age, he would ultimately not go to the afterlife gracefully. The fickle middle class and more affluent sections of intellectual society would ridicule, criticize and forget him; only the humble poor whom he entertained from time immemorial would recall, respect, and probably stick by him. This would be genuine but out of a sense of duty. Mari, the blacksmith, would be a representation of the poor.
- The Hindu goddess worshiped by Nambi is relevant. Ma Shakti is the energy center of the human being located below the base of the spine, which enchants and activates the human being. She is an enchanter on a greater level than Nambi, who meditated on her. She is Divine Cosmic Energy or Power.
- In Indian society, if one imparted wisdom or knowledge, one did so under a banyan tree, symbolizing ancient wisdom. Under this banyan tree, Nambi mentions the core truth about human frailty to the villagers of Somal.
- The stories told by Nambi could have been that of the kings and emperors mentioned in an earlier part of this blog post. He also mixed their stories at times. This is an indication that all stories of all kinds are in a way ‘equal’ to each other by similar patterns like a central hero, a villain, a cunning scheme, initial defeat, etc., and all ultimately speak the same one and only truth that everything stems from something greater than you or I. Their so-called ‘differences’ are mere illusions of that same core realities.
‘Under the Banyan Tree’ ends with Nambi’s silence, but he was not forgotten, and his legacy lives on. So also, the legacy of R.K. Narayan lives on through his Malgudi stories and his other South-Indian-based stories in the portals of Indian fiction written in English. Grahame Greene once said in an introduction to one of R.K. Narayan’s works:
Narayan…wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him, I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.Graham Greene (Introduction to R.K. Narayan’s ‘The Bachelor of Arts)
Nambi teaches us what it means to be human, while R.K. Narayan taught Graham Greene and the world what it meant to be Indian.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree’ by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more short stories by R.K. Narayan in the coming days. If you are interested in reading my detailed summary of the short story collection ‘Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories’, you can check it out here. If you are interested in reading my analyses of R.K. Narayan’s works, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading multiple award-winning Indian novels, you can check out my books Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and analyze more Indian short stories soon.
If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog, insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, check out the products page of my blog or on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
©2023 Fiza Pathan