‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’ was published in 1985 by Indian writer R.K. Narayan and is a collection of many of his short stories spanning his entire literary career till that time. The short stories in this collection are penned at different times in R. K. Narayan’s career, which includes ‘Nitya’, which was then his most recent short story. Some of these stories are set in the fictional South-Indian town of Malgudi. Some are set in different locales but basically in South India. As R.K. Narayan mentions in the introduction to the book, a writer does not only write his best works at the end of his career and likewise does not write his more mediocre works at the beginning. Instead, inspiration eludes the short story writer at odd times in his career, making him write different kinds of short stories and shorter fiction in his whole career, which can, at times, surprise the best literary analysts. The short stories in this collection were mostly penned to eke out a living by publishing at least two short stories per week in the Indian newspaper The Hindu. Others were written for other literary magazines, and some were autobiographical in nature. The following will narrate the summaries of each of these stories in short for the reader’s benefit. R.K. Narayan is considered to be one of the great stalwarts of pre-Independence Indian writers writing in the English Language along with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao.
We must remember that R.K. Narayan is internationally famous for his popular short story collection titled ‘Malgudi Days’, which chronicles the lives of everyday South Indian individuals in pre-Independence and post-Independence India. This collection titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’ is penned in a similar vein and with the same humor, satire, irony, and realism as the first collection. The following are the summaries of the individual stories in this collection:
‘Nitya’ is the freshest story in this collection, telling the story of a family who owned a temple in a far-off forest area outside the original town where they lived. The middle-aged parents of a young college-going boy called Nitya wished to visit that temple to complete a vow they had made when the boy was an infant and almost at death’s door. The vow was to pay obeisance to the god, thereby shaving the scalp of Nitya. Nitya is not keen on this idea at all being a fashionable and modern young man but is forced to comply with the wishes of his superstitious parents. On arriving there, they find it difficult to locate the local barber of that region. While waiting for another alternative, the parents probably think of only cutting a lock of the boy’s hair instead of giving him a crop. The boy Nitya is very pleased to hear this. But to his ill luck, the truant barber finally appears on the scene, and the parents go back on their word. Nitya, in disgust, leaves the temple with his hair intact, saying that the deal was made for a lock and not the whole scalp, which shocks and scandalizes all present, ending the tale in a typical R.K. Narayan anti-climax.
The ‘House Opposite’ is the satirical retelling of an old folktale by R.K. Narayan, where an ascetic lives opposite a prostitute. While the ascetic’s mind constantly dwelled on what the prostitute was doing, who she was sleeping with, at what hours her clients were leaving her home, her vital statistics, etc., the prostitute, on the other hand, thought of the ascetic as a holy man worthy of being emulated and worshiped which she manages to do at the end of the tale. The ascetic is ashamed of his deplorable behavior towards the prostitute and blesses her hesitantly. However, because his mind was only fixed on the prostitute and her sensuality and not his meditation, he decided to leave his hut or shanty and live elsewhere away from such distractions. Only at the end does he realize that the prostitute was not wicked but lived an exemplary religious life that surpassed his miserable life.
A Horse and Two Goats
‘A Horse and Two Goats’ is one of the oldest stories in this collection, penned when the author was at the height of his career, and was originally contained in a book of the same title. The story centers on an elderly, illiterate, and poor villager called Muni, who owned two goats he grazed on the outskirts of his village named Kritam. While doing so, he used to sit under a giant horse statue. Muni is barely able to survive and eat in Kritam and longs for money so that he would be able to sell his goats and, with the income, open a wayside stall on the same spot to provide refreshments for wayfarers. A station wagon one day breaks down in front of him, and out comes an American tourist asking for the gas station. The Americans only knew English, and Muni only chaste Tamil, yet, they managed to have a lively and hilarious conversation. Ultimately, they were at cross purposes when the American thought Muni owned the horse statue and was selling it to him while Muni thought the American was a British policeman out to buy his goats for 100 rupees. The irony was that, indeed, each got what they wanted. While the American gains the horse without buying the two goats, Muni gets 100 rupees without either selling the goats or exactly selling the horse statue either. When Muni’s wife finds out that the goats had followed him home and had not gone off with the American, she thinks he had indulged in thievery and retorts that she was leaving him at the mercy of the police while she, a senior citizen, was going to her mother’s house.
The Roman Image
The famous Malgudi character, the Talkative Man, plays a part in this short story titled ‘The Roman Image’. He gains employment with an eccentric foreign archaeologist in this short story even though he does not know the slightest thing about the subject other than his basic school history lessons. He and the archaeologist work together well enough, especially because the professional had a hunch that he would find an ancient civilization in the fictional South-Indian town of Malgudi which would be even older than that of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. They start digging around Malgudi, and one fine day, the Talkative Man accidentally falls upon a broken piece of stone sculpture in a pond. He brings it to the crazed archaeologist, who thinks it to be an artifact from the Roman civilization, which would prove that India had trade relations with Rome. They become extremely famous until it is revealed to the Talkative Man that the broken stone sculpture was part of a pair of temple gargoyles made quite recently at a bargain price typical of the Malgudi residents. It was thrown in the temple allegedly by the temple pundit in a fit of drunkenness as he always felt the gargoyle was attacking him. The book to be published on the statue was abandoned, and the Talkative Man was duly dismissed from his prestigious job.
‘The Watchman’ is the story of a rural tank bund watchman who supervised the bund by merely lazing around the whole day. The bund was almost akin to a park where people used to come for recreational purposes. However, that tank was also a famous suicide spot in the town. One night during his supervision, the watchman catches a young unmarried girl about to commit suicide by jumping into the tank. He single-handedly tries to save her life by coaxing her to return to her stepmother’s home. He realizes that this girl’s life depended on what he said to her that night. She refused to return to her stepmother’s house because the older woman wanted to get her married off while the daughter wanted to pursue her studies and a medical career. The watchman still continues comically to coax her away back to her home. He is successful in doing so though he is not aware of it until many years later when he sees the same girl, now a mother of three with her upper-middle-class husband, arrive at the tank for some recreation. When he tries to gain her attention, she ignores him, and he concludes sadly from this exchange that she is probably a different individual.
Yet again, the Talkative Man appears in this story titled ‘A Career’ where he speaks about his old job of once having been a goods store owner. He was doing partially well till the day Ramu, a young twenty-year-old South Indian lad, came into his life. Ramu endeared himself to the Talkative Man and his whole family to such an extent that he started living with them, taking care of the household chores and running the shop for the Talkative Man. Ramu soon gained the affection of everyone in the town because of his way with words and his charm. However, in actuality, Ramu was a thief and wayward character who had been missing from his home for several years. He fell in love with a domestic help in the town and looted the Talkative Man of all his money to gain her love and elope with her to an unknown destination. The Talkative Man was reduced to beggary until he started working on a coffee estate. He regained his wealth and self-respect but could never forget the treachery of Ramu. He, however, manages to forgive him when he bumps into him at a temple. Ramu could not recognize him because he had become blind due to smallpox fever and was reduced to begging on the temple steps of South India, traveling from place to place, the woman he yearned for having abandoned him a long time ago.
Old Man of the Temple
This story again is told by the Talkative Man, who one night found himself in a taxi with a young driver named Doss heading back home to his town. It was a spooky and dark night, and on the journey, they happened by an old, run-down, and deserted temple. There they were forced to stop because the ghost or spirit of an ancient eighty-year-old man named Vishnu Varma took possession of Doss. Vishnu started conversing and grumbling to the Talkative Man about his old age, his aches and pains, and how, of late, not a soul bothered about him even though it was he who built the temple they were parked by. The Talkative Man was at first wondering whether Doss was drunk but then realized that he was possessed by a spirit who was murdered on his way back home several centuries ago when there were Kings in the land. The Talkative Man, through clever thinking, cajoles the spirit to go back to his wife and leave the body of Doss. After a lot of comical banter, the spirit listens to him, and then Doss lies flat on the ground. The Talkative Man finds out the same about the hauntings of Vishnu Varma at the end of the story from a neighboring family around the temple who was quite fed up with the ghost themselves.
‘A Hero’ is a Swaminathan story written after R.K. Narayan penned his first Malgudi book titled ‘Swami and Friends’ in the pre-Independence period of India. In ‘A Hero,’ Swaminathan, a mischievous but innocent average South-Indian school boy, is challenged by his strict father to sleep alone away from his grandmother on the father’s office bench towards a corner of the house. Needless to say, the cowardly Swami is petrified of following his father’s instructions but is forced to do so eventually. He is tormented the whole horrific night by frightening thoughts all of his own imagination, which induces him to hide under the office bench. He then hears some scraping at the office window and footsteps approaching him. He concludes that the devil has come to take away his soul and does not want to go without a fight. Therefore, he bites into the devil’s flesh savagely, wounding not the devil but a notorious burglar from those parts who was wanted by the police for many house breakings. He is rewarded the next day by the Malgudi police, and his picture appears in the newspaper. However, after that, he still refuses to sleep in the office and is allowed to sleep near his grandmother lest he happens upon some other danger while sleeping alone yet again in the office under the bench.
‘Dodu’ is the short story of a precocious young boy who is not yet grown up enough to go to kindergarten but enterprising enough to make money for his personal needs. He is the youngest member of his family and is neglected by them, so he takes it upon himself to earn money for his requirements. He tries unsuccessfully to sell postcards and stamps with the result that only his family members buy his goods and at that on credit! He did not make a profit and decided to do some artwork on certain banana plantain leaves to impress a famous elderly doctor of history and a museum director. He heard from his elder brother that the director rewarded people, even children, who accidentally happened upon ancient manuscripts, and paid them handsomely. Dodu creates manuscripts of his own showcasing his meager understanding of the English and Tamil alphabet, numerals, and certain incorrect grammar sentences. The Director, when he sees the work of Dodu, finds the whole charade so hilarious from his otherwise boring and serious life that he rewards Dodu with a good amount which the careless boy that little Dodu is, spends on groundnuts.
‘Another Community’ is one of the only serious pieces in this collection dedicated to the horrors of the Partition of India, which took place in 1947. In this story, R.K. Narayan, through a nameless individual, tells the story of the riots, which killed many, created suspicion among community members, and created a great rift between the Muslim and Hindu communities. This he does without taking the name of each community during the whole short story making the reader realize that all human beings are equal and bleed red at the end of the day. The unnamed individual in this short story titled ‘Another Community’ is an insurance office worker from a middle-class background living in a two-room house with his wife and four children. His life is as commonplace as that of any white-collar worker in India. His fellow community members, however, start whispering among themselves about killings and a riot which upsets him because he has no enmity towards the other community. He is afraid for his life and the well-being of his family but, unfortunately, is killed by rioters in a narrow lane. He is ironically the first victim of that area, sparking a terrible major Partition communal riot in that area.
Like the Sun
In this short story, a schoolmaster named Shekar is waiting for a raise in his salary or an increment. He detests teaching and is unable to correct a set of important school test papers. He is one day called to the Principal’s office. Thinking that he is being pulled up because of the uncorrected papers, he goes there hesitantly, only to realize that the headmaster wants to take him to his home to sing some ragas or classical South Indian music to Shekar. Shekar was subjected to this show of respect and admiration because he was a staunch music lover and truthful critic. However, the principal’s singing is atrocious, and Shekar is at a loss to know what he must say to his superior. He decides to be truthful and tells the Principal to give up his music ambition. The Principal, with a sense of comprehension, does heed the advice of Shekar and immediately gives up his music to the shock of Shekar. However, the Principal preponed the student’s school papers that needed to be corrected, and Shekar had to comply.
‘Chippy’ is one of the few animal stories in the book. Chippy is the name of a rather medium-sized dog who lived with a British army gentleman who was stationed in India. They lived happily together till one day, Chippy strangled the officer’s wife’s Pekinese. He is then adopted or given away to a college-going young man who treats him well and spends a lot of quality time with Chippy. Chippy enjoys the company and attention of the boy, but one day, the boy brings home a dachshund. The dog’s long body and small size disgusted Chippy, but he knew that he dared not try the same tactic with the dachshund as he did with the Pekinese. He starts to ignore the small dog by moving away from the latter’s vicinity. Chippy grows a stranger to his master’s home and even his master’s affection. The boy seems more attached to the small dachshund, which totally replaces Chippy in every way, including the rides the boy takes accompanied by the dog on the cycle. Chippy, at first, stays outside the home in a kennel or garage area. When the smaller dog also happens upon this hiding place, Chippy is forced to leave his abode and live in the neighboring Malgudi non-vegetarian butcher lane. He eats his fill of meat there and has a lot of freedom. Soon, however, he starts missing the company of the boy and his old life. He returns with his tail between his legs to the boy, who receives him gladly as one would receive a close old friend. The boy, at the end of the story, divulges to Chippy that the dachshund was taken away by his original owners but informs Chippy not to worry over the loss of his ‘old friend’ as the college boy was in the process of procuring another dog to keep Chippy company, thus ending the short story titled ‘Chippy’ on yet another hilarious Narayan anti-climax.
‘Uncle’s Letters’ is a series of short letters that an unnamed paternal uncle has written to his youngest nephew for around seventy years. The Uncle is ingratiating, devoted, and patronizing and is free with his advice to the nephew from the time the nephew is a newborn to his retirement. The nephew seems to live an ordinary middle-class life as the letters progress. The Uncle himself was only a decade or so older than the nephew because he calls himself an octogenarian when the nephew turns seventy years of age. The letters are witty and comic but brief. The advice given is like external varnish, which does not technically have any particular use. The boy grows to drink sugar syrup, cuts his first tooth, goes to school on the first day, finishes a college degree, gets married, gives birth to children, gets a first job, retires, marries off his children, becomes a grandfather among other events of really no consequence.
All Avoidable Talk
Sastri is a typical middle-class South-Indian working gentleman who becomes a great astrology fanatic. He follows everything dictated to him by the stars and one day tries for the sake of not causing any trouble not to speak a word that is unnecessary or futile even to utter. He does land up into several problems with his wife, on the tram he travels, with his customer at the jewelry shop where he works, and even with his boss. However, he staunchly sees to it that he does not cross the line with the stars. In the jewelry shop particularly, a very irritating customer enters asking for a frivolous piece of work to be done to convert a golden ring studded with a diamond into a platinum one. Instead of ridiculing the notion of the half-crazed customer right out, Sastri tells him to converse about the same with the shop owner, which angers the customer to a great extent. He complains about Sastri’s unruly behavior to Sastri’s boss, who starts to give Sastri a dressing down in front of the aforementioned customer. The customer is pleased with the dressing down but leaves without the job being done. The store owner revealed then to Sastri that the customer was actually irritating them both and forgave Sastri for his seemingly rude behavior but asked him to be a bit more pleasant with his customers next time if he intended to keep his job in the future. Thus, Sastri successfully manages to go through the whole day without crossing his stars by speaking any unavoidable talk. The only major casualty of the day was that his wife was sulking in the evening while serving him dinner.
A Snake in the Grass
‘A Snake in the Grass’ is a humorous tale of a family of lazy upper-middle-class individuals lounging at home in the heat of the late afternoon when a passing bicycling lad spots a huge black cobra entering their wild garden. He alerts the family, who, in turn, go berserk with fear and horror. The mother of the household and her young sons blame the lazy watchman Dasa for not tending to the garden properly, leaving it wild and therefore attracting denizens of the wild into it. Dasa is, at this time, fast asleep in his shed. He had to be forcibly woken up and then was informed about the arrival of the cobra. Dasa took the news lightly and stated that there was no cobra in the garden and tried getting back to sleep. He is pulled out of his resting place and is forced to search the whole garden for the serpent. The entire family, servants, additional help, and the laidback Dasa start hunting all over the wild garden for the black cobra. In the bargain, they hacked all the plants to a great extent, which probably was the only real serious gardening ever done in that place. The mother’s howling interjects their search, the young son’s snake statistics, and Dasa’s cynicism. An old blind beggar woman arrives to beg for alms at their door to be rudely told not to enter a house to beg where there is a nasty cobra loose. The blind beggar is genial and states that god, in the form of a cobra, was in visitation and the home, which she termed blessed. She, in turn, tries to help them out by getting them a snake charmer to catch the cobra. However, the snake charmer was of a one-track mind and was not willing to search the drain for the serpent but to only pick it up or grab it if it were placed near him in some way or another. After the defeat of even the snake charmer, Dasa brings out a clay pot with a large rock stuck in its mouth. He triumphantly informs the crazy circle of snake hunters that he has finally caught the creature, which was captured in the pot. He takes the pot to the snake charmer’s home, and the happy family is jubilant. However, their excitement turns into bewilderment when a giant black cobra emerges from the garden, moves to the gate, takes a brief look at them, and leaves the area. The family now wonders whether there were two cobras in their garden or whether Dasa was pulling a fast one on them because he wanted to get back to sleep. The story ends in a comical anti-climax when the youngest son states that he should have checked the pot when he had the chance.
The Evening Gift
Sankar was a hard-up and bankrupt individual whose family depended on him for survival. However, Sankar was a laid-back and complacent person who never liked to take up any concrete work. The day the family of Sankar beggars to the extent that they would have to leave their only shelter and live on the streets is when Sankar wakes up from his stupor. He manages to land a unique and, to him, most useless job, which is to tend to a wealthy alcoholic who would get dead drunk every night and to bring him back to his home without the latter getting molested, robbed, or disgraced. For this, Sankar was paid a decent sum which he was not satisfied with. The alcoholic was a tedious man who would fire Sankar every night but would obey his cajoling, get up after getting completely drunk, and head back to his car and home. The alcoholic would then forget the previous night’s events to return to the same bar to have his drinks with Sankar in tow. This went on night after night until one day, Sankar needed 100 rupees to pay the debt on his village home. The alcoholic that night fires Sankar yet again for interrupting him to go home while he is still having his drinks, to which Sankar asks him to give him his remaining fees. The proud, rich man handed Sankar 120 rupees with the extra money as a tip, and Sankar gratefully accepted the money. Sankar leaves the drunkard to his fate in the bar as ordered and prepares to return to his village. He spends some of the money as gifts for his family, but before he can get onto his bus, he is caught by the police and arrested for having apparently robbed the rich man. The alcoholic was apparently beaten up black and blue and was left unconscious in an alleyway for the whole night till next morning. The alcoholic, as every day, had forgotten the words of the previous night and had mistakenly thought that Sankar had robbed him and had beaten him up black and blue instead of realizing that he willingly gave Sankar the money and he had been beaten by the bar bouncers and rowdy individuals. Sankar is now left beggared and wonders what he will do when he returns without money and a job to his village.
A Breath of Lucifer
‘A Breath of Lucifer’ is a fictional-memoir piece in this collection titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’. It is inspired by actual events when R.K. Narayan was in the 1960s in the hospital for eye surgery. After the surgery, he had to keep his eyes bandaged for a whole week, and for his everyday activities in the ward, he was assisted by a male nurse named Sam. Sam was an eccentric and talkative individual devoted to his work but told many tall tales about his adventures as a male nurse in Burma. He was pleasant with R.K. Narayan and his visiting family members every other day. On the last night of R.K. Narayan’s stay in the hospital, Sam manages to get some money from the author, who is still bandaged up and buys some party food and drinks. This was to celebrate R.K. Narayan’s last day at the hospital. However, along with the cake, candles, coco-colas, and fruit juice, the cunning Sam managed to procure some cheap alcohol and mix it in his drink without the notice of Narayan. He gets so drunk that he starts fantasizing about again being in Burma, assisting the injured victims there. In his drunken stupor, he mourns for his lost lady love Marie and leads the blind Narayan outside the hospital into the courtyard garden. There he leaves Narayan, who is frightened and thinks he is falling down a black precipice. He abandons Narayan recklessly, searching for old Marie while Narayan is forced to sleep there on the earth in the open. A hospital staff only retrieves him in the morning, and Sam loses his job. On the other hand, because of undue exposure to the weather, Narayan had to stay for an even longer time at the hospital with his eyes bandaged and a new nurse. Sam writes him a letter of affection, hoping that he will be discharged soon and that he regrets that he was not with him. Thus, through the ‘breath’ of a devil-like male nurse too caught up in his past, Narayan claims to have almost lost his eyes but realizes that the world of a blind individual is a unique feeling in itself.
‘Annamalai’ is the second fictional-autobiographical piece in this collection penned by R.K. Narayan. This short piece is the story of R.K. Narayan’s watchman cum gardener named Annamalai, who looked after the affairs of Narayan’s new home for ten years of the author’s stay there. There, Annamalai tended the garden in a peculiar way, did the shopping for Narayan, kept an eye on the unwanted passersby in the vicinity, abused the neighbor’s fowls, and made Narayan write his ‘English’ letters for him. The short piece begins with Narayan being asked to pen a letter to Annamalai’s ungrateful brother in the village which turns out to be a rigmarole affair because Annamalai does not know his address nor the actual names of the landmarks and prime location indicators. Among other activities like preventing the garden from being invaded by the ‘evil eye’ and gossiping with his cronies, Annamalai had managed to bully a poor Muslim tailor into paying rent for an unnecessary period for the sewing machine and place of work outside Annamalai’s village home. One day, the Muslim tailor gives him the slip and makes off without informing anyone, and a new Muslim tailor who has no clue about the previous agreement takes his seat outside Annamalai’s village home. Annamalai is ball ragged by the whole situation and, after working at Narayan’s new home for a decade, packs his bags to return home to his village for good to deal with this issue. How much ever, Narayan coaxes him to give up the idea as the so-called agreement paper is bogus mumbo-jumbo. Annamalai is adamant and returns to the village. Narayan did not hear from Annamalai again until he was quite old and needed money because of dire poverty. At first, Narayan did want to lend Annamalai the money but thought better of it because he believed he was probably being fooled by Annamalai’s treacherous brother in the village and probably his old watchman cum gardener was already quite dead.
‘The Shelter’ is another serious tale of a separated couple caught in the rain under a tree. The husband and wife were recently separated over a trivial matter which the wife took too much to heart. This was the opinion of the husband, who carelessly mentioned the topic as they waited, drenched to the bone, for the rain to stop. The husband tries to cajole his wife to return to their marital home while the wife accuses him of all the harm caused to her sentiments and emotions. Eventually, the wife leaves the place, moving away into the rain. The husband is left stunned and yearning for his relationship with his wife.
The Mute Companions
In ‘The Mute Companions’, R.K. Narayan tells the story of a hearing and speech-impaired man who wants to earn an income. One day he manages to catch a monkey which he trains to do several tricks despite the fact that he cannot speak. After a good bit of training, the man named Sami starts showcasing his monkey to the public, who managed to make a lot of money for him. The spectators were amazed that despite being differently abled, Sami had trained the monkey so well that the ape could do the usual entertaining tricks of the monkey trade, like carrying a pot, placating a mother-in-law, et al. Usually, Sami used to avoid the big bungalows, but one day, greed got the better of him, and he took his monkey to entertain a family of many children at the bungalow. The main reason for the monkey and its master being entertained by the bungalow’s patriarch was because the youngest child of the family was ill and needed some cheering up. Everything was going well until the monkey spotted some delicious bread and sprang upon the child and the company scaring the little one out of its wits. Sami is hauled out without the money out of the bungalow without his monkey. The ape was busy munching on his bread upon the bungalow’s roof, and how much ever Sami tried to gurgle to him authoritatively to come down, the ape would not comply. Feeling the wonders of a free life after so long, the monkey escaped through a ventilator and disappeared from Sami’s life for good. Sami, till the end, felt that the monkey was now living in the bungalow itself, which he felt was not fair to him.
At the Portal
In this short story titled ‘At the Portal,’ R.K. Narayan narrates how he could not attend a committee meeting one evening because some squirrels held him up on his way to that meeting. He observed a mother and its two-week-old baby squirrel trying to make their way through a hole in the boundary wall back to their home. They wish to do so before darkness falls when the predators of the night emerge from their lairs. The young squirrel does not understand the seriousness of their situation and is still at an age where he is quite playful. While the mother manages to jump through the hole, the young squirrel cannot do so despite repeated attempts. The mother and young child exchange words of encouragement and stubbornness respectively between each other. R.K. Narayan imagines he hears the cajoling of the determined mother and the complaining of the reluctant young squirrel. The evening progresses with R.K. Narayan not shifting from his place near the hole as he wonders what the outcome of this issue between the mother squirrel, and her young one would be. Ultimately, the frugal and strict mother squirrel leaves her young one outside in the dark and seems to make her way back to her home, feeling that for the sake of the child, she could not afford to risk her own life. She wanted to teach him about the reality of life the hard way, which was cruel but necessary. When left alone, the dismayed young one realizes their precarious situation and climbs the tree to call his mother to return and carry him in her jaws back to their home. At that point, R.K. Narayan leaves the scene, moving to his appointment, for which he ultimately lands up late, disappointing all concerned once again.
‘Four Rupees’ by R.K. Narayan is the story of Ranga, who one day sets out from his home at Kabir Lane to go look out for some work. He is hard up and needs to provide food for his family urgently. He accidentally gets employed in retrieving a brass vessel from the bottom of a sixty-foot-deep well in a nearby bungalow. He is reluctant to do so, but the temptation to earn money urges him on. The family to whom the well and the brass pot belonged were overjoyed when they finally found a scapegoat, or, as they called him, a ‘well-man’ to retrieve their prized brass pot from the bottom of the well. They mention to him the importance of the ridiculous brass pot, which was an heirloom of their great-grandfather, which they felt would add to the urgency to get it back. However, Ranga feels increasingly afraid of mortally losing his life at the bottom of that well. The family cannot quieten his fears even after cajoling him with a lavish lunch, extra money, and betel leaves. He tried to run off, but they almost bodily thrust him down the well. He dramatically tells them to give his regards to his wife and descends to the bottom of the well slowly and unsurely. He manages to get the brass vessel but faints in an anti-climactic swoon on returning to the surface. He gets four rupees and an extra four annas, which he brings back to his complaining wife. The bungalow residents complain about his avarice because the money they were paying him was much more than what the brass heirloom was worth, yet he continued to ask for more money because he felt he had ‘risked his life’ for their sake. His wife thinks it is impossible that he could be a so-called ‘well-man’ when he brings back the amount to her, and she states that he probably had stolen the money in desperation. Little did she know what torments he had to go through to procure the four rupees and the additional four annas as a cowardly ‘well-man’.
Flavour of Coconut
This humorous story begins dramatically when a sort of prisoner of the bar is being prosecuted in a typical South Indian middle-class home. Though we think that the trial being held is for a notorious prisoner, vandalizer, or dacoit, the actual culprit in this story is a tiny little mouse who has been creating havoc in the home of this South Indian family. From eating all the grain to dropping vessels in the dead of night, from nibbling on the toes of the youngest boy to tearing up the saree of the school-going daughter, from creating a loud ruckus at night to leaving the kitchen in a mess, this mouse harasses the family to no end. They try ways and means to trap him but to no avail. The last straw fell one day when the school-going girl’s saree was torn. The sight of the heartbroken girl made a lasting impression on her father, who, after the further taunting of his distraught wife, was determined to rid the family of this rodent whom they had not even seen yet. Remember that they still thought that the troublemaker was a large rodent or rat rather than a tiny-looking mouse resembling the world-famous Disney Mickey Mouse in looks. The only person with a soft corner for the animal was a boy whose arithmetic book had been trimmed at the corners by this rodent which he really appreciated as he was not a conscientious student. With some advice from an expert in the family on rodents, they fry a piece of tasty coconut, place it in a trap and pull over it a gunny sack. The delicious smell of fried coconut and the rodent’s never-ending avarice finally gets it into trouble, and he is apprehended. The family watches it angrily as they try to determine its final sentence. The young boy who had his arithmetic book trimmed by the mouse pleads for a ‘life sentence’ only, but the enraged judge, who was his father, remembered his daughter’s tears and, in a cold voice, ordered the servant of the home to duck the mouse in cold water and drown it. The story ends with everyone being satisfied with the scenario and the voyeuristic boy following the servant to witness the execution of the little mouse whose criminal activities had finally come to an inglorious end. All this because of a piece of fried coconut!
Fruition at Forty
‘Fruition at Forty’ is the story of Rama Rao, who turned forty. R.K. Narayan describes him as a man of modest means with a wife and children at the peak of his middle age. Rama Rao had lived a very ordinary life as an officer in his company, working for a boss who hardly gave him time off. However, Rama Rao takes a leave of absence on his birthday from this same boss, who is astonished that his employee has turned forty because he didn’t look it. However, Rama Rao felt like a forty-year-old man who had not achieved much in life and would have to have now the added burden of looking for a husband for his daughter and a suitable career for his son. He nevertheless decided to surprise the family on the occasion of his birthday, which is unusual because it indicates that they lived such an ordinary life that birthdays held no importance. No one in the house even remembered that it was his birthday. He goes to the Moore Market to buy some printed silk pieces, colored ribbons, building blocks, sweets, and some vegetables for a modest birthday feast to surprise his family. However, before purchasing all these items, he realizes that his pocket has been picked up on the way to the market. He recalled a man with a scowl dashing him and a squeeze of his side when he arrived at the Moore Market. He dejectedly returns home without mentioning the theft or his birthday, not to upset his anxious wife. He had lost twenty rupees and many receipts in the theft and was sure that the loss of the amount would make his wife go berserk as he had misplaced five rupees some time ago, and even then, she had railed about the loss. He lands up going back to work on his birthday despite the leave of absence, and the workaholic boss is happy to have him back as there is a lot of pending work to be done. Thus, Rama Rao lives life like a prisoner in jail, just making time till his final end would come.
Crime and Punishment
In a grandiose but ironic way, R.K. Narayan gives the title ‘Crime and Punishment’ to this next story in his collection, which reminds one of the serious Russian classic penned by Fyodor Dostoevsky with the same title. However, this story is about the humorous blackmailing of a tuition master by his mollycoddled and disobedient little student who refuses to learn his math tables but wishes to play with his toy engine and train. The tuition master, in the heat of the moment, accidentally slaps the boy on his cheek, leaving a visible red hand impression which the boy takes clear advantage of. He blackmails his frightened tutor, saying that if he shows that mark to his wealthy parents, they will get him into trouble. The tuition teacher knowing fully well that he would be given the sack on the stop by the overindulgent parents concedes to doing whatever the boy wishes. The tutor, for a while, at the order of the boy, plays at being a station master and then tells the boy a story. When he cannot continue due to exhaustion, the boy threatens him again with the excuse of a slap and runs away into the garden. The tutor runs after him but is caught by both parents. The father wondered why the class had been discontinued so early in the evening and whether the boy was ready for his math test. To cover up for himself, the tutor stated that the boy was doing well but only had to revise his sixteen times tables. He then exits the scene, knowing that one could not argue with parents who were fond of child psychology rather than discipline.
Half a Rupee Worth
R.K. Narayan’s short story ‘Half a Rupee Worth’ is the dramatically ironic tale of Subbiah, who lived during the time of the Second World War. Subbiah sold rice which was a family business, and though it was mandatory to hand over most of the rice to the government and to have a fixed and affordable price control for the rice at the time of the war, Subbiah, because of his greed, did not follow the rules. He managed to hoodwink the government through a series of corrupt activities and practices and hoarding enough rice to fill two godowns even during the war. People in his town were starving, but Subbiah was prosperous. One day in the late evening, a poor starving man desperate to bring home some rice for his dying family meets Subbiah as he latches his door. This poor individual only had half a rupee in his possession and wished to buy three seers of rice as per the new price control rule of the government. Subbiah brushes the poor man off, stating that he would only get half a seer for half a rupee. The poor man, desperate for rice despite the callousness and wickedness of Subbiah, agrees to take something home rather than nothing. Subbiah robs the man of his only half a rupee and forbids him to follow him while Subbiah goes to the second hidden godown to get the rice the man needs. He ordered him to remain there while he was away. The poor individual waited it out, but Subbiah did not return. After a long while, the poor individual made his way to Subbiah’s wealthy home, where he encountered Subbiah’s anxious wife, who stated that her husband had not returned home all evening, and that was very unusual where he was concerned. In desperation, the worried wife asks the man whether he had checked in the secret godown about her husband’s whereabouts. They both rush to the place where they find Subbiah dead under several heavy piles of rice, which he had hoarded throughout the war, with half a rupee in front of him. His greed, at last, had killed him in a typical anti-climactic manner.
In this short story by R.K. Narayan titled ‘The Antidote’ a small-time actor called Gopal, who had just turned forty-nine years of age, was auditioning for a role in a film company. The director, a rude, uncivil, and authoritarian individual, ordered Gopal and all the actors he ever directed not to ask questions or for a script but just to do as ordered scene by scene. He was a director akin to the directors of the mid-20th century in Indian cinema who worked without a script. Therefore, Gopal was unaware that on that particular day, the film script dictated that the actor had to die from shock upon hearing the news of an astonishing event on the rotary telephone. Gopal is flabbergasted on hearing this and refuses to do the scene. It seemed that his astrologer had made a declaration to him many years before that there could have been a possibility that Gopal would not live to see his 49th birthday, and if he did, then he would have to make sure not to do anything inauspicious on that particular birthday. If he lived through the day, he would have a long life ahead and nothing to worry about. For years Gopal had lived in fear of this birthday, and on that day, before coming to the studio, he and his family had performed some special ritualistic rites and had even had a small religious feast to redeem his life from the death curse. The director was at a loss about what to do because they needed to shoot the death scene that day itself because the next day, the studio was booked by another film production house for a palace scene. Gopal was distraught and was quite sure that all concerned at the studio, especially the heartless director, the hard-hearted boss, and even the tyrannical scriptwriter, were set on sending him to the land of the god Yama, who was the Hindu god of the underworld. Gopal is forced to complete the scene, which he does well until he falls back in the chair. To nullify the death scene’s effects, he winks at the camera, thinking it is a perfect antidote to the inauspicious day. The vigilant director notices it and cruelly orders the cameras to start rolling again because they have to reshoot the scene. In this cliffhanger manner, the short story ‘The Antidote’ ends.
Under the Banyan Tree
This is the title story of this collection of tales by R.K. Narayan. It concludes the collection with the tale 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 used to narrate to them under a banyan tree in front of the temple of the Mother goddess Ma Durga. He resided at that temple, but no one knew how old he was or how he landed up being the storyteller of Somal. Yet, every time there was a lighted lamp placed in the niche of the banyan tree, the villagers all knew that Nambi had a story to tell and would gather to him 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 goddesses have 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 go by, this hesitancy and silence in telling a tale due to old age of Nambi keeps on getting worse. One day, he finally personally calls all the villagers to the banyan tree to tell them a really wonderful story. The villagers assume that their old storyteller has, at last, got his powers of eloquent speaking back and return to their places under the banyan tree that night. To their shock, the storyteller tells them once they settle down that, that is the last day he will speak as he has 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.
R.K. Narayan is the novelist of the individual man, just as Mulk Raj Anand is the novelist of the social man and Raja Rao that of the metaphysical man.M.K. Naik (The Ironic Vision)
Thus, ‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’ ends on a note of gratitude to the divine for giving R.K. Narayan the power of storytelling with which he has enthralled readers right from the time he penned his first novel ‘Swami and Friends’. In this collection, too, he has used irony, satire, and humor as primary weapons to expose society’s shame, follies, and hypocrisy. It is his humor mainly, however, that makes his writing interesting and readable even till his last days. He is indeed the most successful Indo-Anglian novelist who wrote in English, which is distinctively Indian but still remains English. His short stories will outlive all others for this characteristic trait, including his famous bestselling ‘Malgudi Days’ and this collection. In this book summary blog post, I have managed to summarize every story in this collection titled ‘Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories’. The book was entertaining and created in me nostalgia for the time when R.K. Narayan, the grand old man of Malgudi, still lived in India, Mysore, and regaled the world with his short stories.
I enjoyed re-reading and summarizing this collection of short stories by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s short stories and longer fiction and non-fiction soon. If you want to check out some of the other short story analysis and book reviews cum analyses of R.K. Narayan that I have done, you can check them out here. If you benefitted from this blog post and want to know more about my bookish life, you can check out my memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra or Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. These memoirs are award-winners that chronicle my whole life in books and with books. I have also mentioned my favorite writer R.K. Narayan and how he has influenced me as a writer. I hope to re-read and review more short story collections soon.
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