Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Portrayal of Gandhi in “Waiting for the Mahatma”

R. A. Jayantha

Portrayal of Gandhi
in “Waiting for the Mahatma

Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati

Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) is perhaps the most controversial novel of R. K. Narayan. Apart from its artistic merits and demerits (which are considerable), many Indian readers of the novel have felt dissatisfied with it and found it difficult to warm up to it particularly because of the way the Mahatma is portrayed in it. Non-Indian readers however have more or less favourably reacted to it, while being alive to its artistic lapses. An extreme instance is H. M. Williams who regards it as one of the two “most mature novels” of Narayan (Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English. Vol. I, Writers Workshop, Calcutta. p. 86). On page 123 of his My Dateless Diary Narayan has recorded that a young American novelist, to whom he had given this novel to read, remarked that “we don’t learn anything about Mahatma Gandhi from it,” a view many Indian readers would perhaps readily endorse. For us Indians the mere mention of Gandhi’s name conjures up the vision of a “man of God” who “trod on earth”, as Nehru described him in one of his speeches after Gandhi’s death. He was acclaimed a Mahatma and worshipped as an Avatar. Exasperated by Narayan’s handling of Gandhi in WFM myteacher Prof. C. D. Narasimhaiah had even suggested that Narayan would have done well to withdraw it from circulation (The Swan and the Eagle. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla. 1969. p. 155).

There is no gainsaying at all that WFM, for all its readability, is indeed unsatisfactory and disappointing as a novel. But if we could see it for what it really is in itself, we would be able to arrive at a fair assessment of it as well as Narayan’s handling of the Gandhian motif in it. The first thing to note about WFM is that it is not a “Gandhi-Novel” as one is very likely to assume it to be. Uma Parameswaran, for instance, has asserted: “It is a Gandhian novel...and the theme is Gandhism.” (A Study of Representative Indo-English Novelists.Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. 1976. p. 65) But Narayan has not written one such, although once again he uses with considerable subtlety the Gandhian motif in his later novel The Vendor of Sweets (1967). Nor is WFM a “political novel”, properly so called. Some of the strongest strictures against it have sprung from these assumptions. But the readers are not wholly to blame. For the title of the novel rouses several expectations, especially regarding the Mahatma, which unfortunately are belied. Had Narayan chosen a different and less assuming title without the Mahatma in it, the readers’ response would have been less unfavourable, if only because many of the expectations roused by the present title and disappointed by the novel would not have been there at all. WFM cannot be called a political novel, though several political happenings between the First World War and Gandhi’s assassination are referred to in the course of the novel. As is his wont, Narayan aims at telling a straightforward story of some people belonging to Malgudi, the town of his mythical imagination.

Briefly, WFM tells the story of two young people of Malgudi, Sriram and Bharathi. Sriram is an orphaned young man brought up without a care by his pampering grand-mother, who makes over to him on his twentieth birthday a considerable fortune. He is shaken out of his life of complacency and stagnation when he gets to know Bharathi, a Gandhian volunteer. She too is an orphaned child. Her father had been shot dead white offering satyagrahaagainst the British during the Non-Co-operation movement of 1920. She, who was just an infant then, was adopted and brought up by the Sevak Sangh, a Gandhian institution, as a foster-daughter to Gandhi. Sriram and Bharathi happen to fall in love with each other. It is they who wait for the Mahatma at the Birla Mandir in New Delhi to obtain his final consent for their marriage. Thus WFM is actually the love story of Sriram and Bharathi told against the ground of the Gandhian decades of India’s struggle for freedom. It also tells how Sriram’s love for Bharathi sustains him throughout the ups and downs of his life since his joining the freedom struggle. This aspect of the novel has to be sufficiently emphasised to see it in perspective.

Narayan introduces into this fictional world Mahatma Gandhi as one of the characters and gives him considerable importance in it. In doing so Narayan was taking a very great risk. For Gandhi is too large a subject to be ushered into a small-scale novel. And there are other attendant problems for the novelist. Although Narayan attempted this novel some years after Gandhi’s, death, still he was much too close in time to Gandhi to view him with sufficient artistic detachment. The next major problem for him is one of balancing properly the Sriram-Bharathi motif and the Gandhi motif in the novel. It is a commonplace that Narayan as novelist is almost invariably interested in people who are average and ordinary and in studying their relationships. That is at once the strength as well as the limitation of his art. Sriram and Bharathi of WFM are of this kind. The problem for the novelist is, what particular aspects of Gandhi’s life and person should he include in the novel to be at once historically authentic and aesthetically consistent with the rest of the novel. Gandhi was not only “a giant among men”, as Radhakrishan described him, but in the eyes of the millions of his countrymen a saint, a Mahatma, a living legend, inspiring veneration and worship. When such a character as this is introduced into the novel, inevitably he overshadows and dwarfs all the others in it, resulting in a thorough imbalance of interests. What is worse, it may even result in huddling together the sublime and the ridiculous. In spite ofNarayan’s carefully devised strategy, WFM has not been able to escape wholly these lapses.

Yet another problem confronting Narayan, one peculiar to him, is the necessity of having to bring into the novel in a good measure the political developments of the Gandhian decades, although, to be sure, Gandhi was no mere politician. For, as a writer of fiction Narayan’s interest in politics and political ideologies has always been minimal. He himself has testified more than once that politics do not interest him as a creative writer. His studied avoidance of current politics as major themes in his fiction has given room for some dissatisfaction with his work as well as misunderstanding of it. But Narayan is neither blind nor indifferent to political happenings. The several incidental references to them in his works, early and late, demonstrate how observant he is. However, it is a matter of his artistic temperament that the vicissitudes of politics, which are ephemeral, do not engage his attention as much as the processes of life do. When he has to take note of them, as in WFM, he takes a deliberately detached and an ironical view of them. This may very well be one ofthe reasons for Narayan’s rather belated use of the Gandhian theme; long after novelists like Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, contem­poraneous with him, had used it even in the ’Thirties.

To steer clear ofthese hurdles Narayan has had to devise for WFM a narrative strategy consistent with his own artistic temper and intention. What he does is to focus attention mainly on the humane qualities of Gandhi, which had enthroned him in the hearts of his countrymen, in spite of his towering far, far above them in other respects. This device enables the novelist to avoid any detailed discussion, debate or elaboration of the politics of the day, which Gandhi guided. Thereby the chief Interest of the novel and of Gandhi in it remains human rather than political, and the novelist feels free to allow his comic irony to play upon events and people, as he does in his other novels. Therefore, in its essentials WFM is not political at all. There is an interesting passage early in the novel which may be recalled here. When Gandhi visits Malgudi, Nataraj, the Municipal Chairman, presents an address to him, which has been thoroughly scrutinised and censored in advance by the District Collector. In this context the narrator remarks that all those passages which hinted at the work done by Gandhiji in the political field” had been censored. “The picture of him as a social reformer was left intact and even enlarged; anyone who read the address would conclude that politics were the last thing that Mahatmaji was interested in” (p. 26). With suitable modifications these remarks can be applied to Gandhi in the novel. Gandhian politics, of course, are not left out, because they cannot be, but played down and relegated to the ground.

Gandhi’s address to the people of Malgudi in the initial pastes of the novel is quite revealing in this regard. He makes only a passing and indirect reference to the British and the freedom of the country, but tells his audience more about the need to discipline themselves to become “soldiers of a non-violent army,” by practising daily “Ram Dhun”, spinning on the Charkhaand...absolute Truth and Non-violence” (p. 17). He goes on to explain how non-violence can be practised in daily life. Later on in the novel these and other Gandhian ideas like Satyagraha, and political developments such as the Dandi Salt March and the Quit India movement are brought in, in so, far as they can be understood by people who are ordinary and average. In fact it is through the eyes of Sriram, whose perception and understanding are very limited, that Gandhi and the struggle for freedom are seen. As Harish Raizada remarks “Even our knowledge of Mahatma Gandhi’s personality is confined to such traits of his character as fall within the purview of Sriram” and others (“point of view in the novels of R. K. Narayan.” Perspectives on R. K. Narayan, ed., Atma Ram. p. 79). Sriam himself is treated with mild irony by the novelist. If this aspect of Naravan’s strategy in WFM is borne in mind, one would not look for In it what was never intended to be put in. To that extent one’s disappointment with the novel and with its portrayal of Gandhi in particular, would be lessened.

Gandhi is introduced into the novel quite early. He, visits Malgudi during his tour of South India and stays there for a few days. It is then that Sriram happens to listen to him addressing the people on the sands of Sarayu. Sriram listens to him with rapt attention and is deeply impressed, although he cannot grasp Gandhi’s meaning. But he is even more impressed by the Gandhian volunteer Bharathi, whom he had chanced to meet earlier when she was connecting money for a fund. So he loins the group of volunteers following the Mahatma so that he can be as close as possible to Bharathi. That is how he follows Gandhi on his tour of the villages hit by famine, moves closely with him and thus has opportunities to observe him. Early in part two ofthe novel, Gandhi leaves the neighbhorhood of Malgudi after having visited a number of villages. He is seen once again in the last pages of the novel, which closes rather abruptly with his sudden death at the hands of an assassin. In between one hears about him every now and then, about his movements and activities. Sriram and Bharathi have letters from him and have the benefit of his advice regarding the course of action they ought to take in opposing the British. Several other characters in the novel are connected with Gandhi directly and indirectly, and react to him in different ways. He is very much on the tongues of the people. Thus he remains a felt presence in the novel, though not as the centre of attention.

How does Gandhi strike the reader when he makes his first appearance in the novel? It is of paramount importance with what words and gestures he is introduced. It has to be admitted that Narayan bungles here, and the objections of Narasimhaiah (The Writer’s Gandhi. Punjabi University, Patiala. pp. 71-72) and Uma Parameswaran (A Study of Representative Indo-English Novelists. pp. 66-77) are indeed well-taken. The very first words spoken by Gandhi strike a false note. While his beginning the meeting with Ram Dhun is very characteristic of him, it is incongruous to say that his voice “boomed” in the amplifier. One cannot at any time associate the word “boom” with Gandhi’s voice. And then, his mode of expressing his dissatisfaction with the way the gathering repeats Ram Dhun is again unconvincing: “No good, Not enough. I like to see more vigour in your arms, more rhythm, more spirit. It must be like the drum-beats of the non-violent soldiers marching on to cut the chains that bind Mother India...” (p. 16). The tone, the exuberance of expression, and the idiom are more appropriate to a popular demogogue than to Gandhi. Uma Parameswaran has drawn attention to the “weakness of language” in Gandhi”s first address at Malgudi (Ibid. p. 67).

Once the preliminaries are gone through, Narayan feels less unsure of himself in handling Gandhi. Gandhi’s image emerges through incidental happenings. He makes himself absolutely and effortlessly at home in Malgudi. To the embarrassment and disappointment of the Municipal Chairman, he chooses to stay, while in Malgudi, in the sweepers’ colony. The novel gives with effortless ease a faithful account of Gandhi’s habits and routine activities–his walks, his spinning, his hours of prayer and rest, his love of children and his disarming ways with people of all kinds. His capacity to do a number of things simultaneously is brought out well in a short space: “Mahatmaji performed a number of things simultaneously. He spoke to visitors. He dictated. He wrote. He prayed. He had his sparse dinner of nuts and milk, and presently he even laid himself down on the Divan and went off to sleep” (p. 34).

By the end of Part One, the image of Gandhi as he appears in this novel is more or less established. He is seen mainly through the eyes of such people as Sriram who are aware of Gandhi primarily as the Mahatma, and through the eyes of such devoted followers as Bharati and Gorpad. There are, of course, a few exceptions such as Sriram’s grand-mother in whose eyes Gandhi “was one who preached dangerously, who tried to bring untouchables into the temples, and who involved people in difficul­ties with the police.” (p. 41) There are others like Nataraj and the timber-contractor who profess admiration and respect for Gandhi and at the same time please the rulers by their loyalty. There is the terrorist Jagadish who does not mind using Gandhi’s name to serve his ends. But for the majority of people Gandhi is the saintly Mahatma. Even Sriram’s fellow-prisoner, who was serving term for house-breaking and murder, joins his palms together at the mention of Gandhi’s name.

In the pages of WFM Gandhi is seen endearing himself to people and commanding universal reverence not merely as a votary of truth and non-violence, but by his child-like qualities, his spontaneous humanity and compassion. Particularly noteworthy is the brief but very moving account of Gandhi’s tour of Naokhali given by Bharati towards the end of the novel. Hers is an eyewitness’s account and carries with it the force of authenticity:

Bapu said his place was where people were suffering and not where they were celebrating. He said that if a country cannot give security to women and children, it’s not worth living in. He said it would be worth dying if that would make his philosophy better understood. We followed him. Each day we walked five miles through floods and fields, silently. He walked with bowed head, all through those swamps of East Bengal. We stopped for a day or two in each village, and he spoke to those who had lost their homes, property, wives, and children. He spoke kindly to those who had perpetrated crimes–he wept for them, and they swore never to do such things again.... Bapuji forbade us to refer to anyone in terms of religion as Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, but just as human beings...There were a few places where they showed their anger even against Mahatmaji. They held up placards threatening Bapu’s life unless he turned and left them. But in such places he stayed longer than in other places. And ultimately he held his ground (p. 166).

As the foregoing passage shows, Narayan’s account of the riots is not only brief and matter of fact, it avoids completely all melodrama and sentimentality, to which a lesser writer would have readily yielded. Instead it directs our attention to the humanity and infinite compassion of Gandhi. The novel implies that for the average man and woman the Mahatmahood of Gandhi is pre-eminently due to these qualities in him.

The great interest that Gandhi takes in the marriage of Sriram and Bharati, who wait for his permission which, of course, is given, has come in for sharp criticism. It has been asked whether the Mahatma did not have anything better to do, especially when the entire nation was convulsed by mass-scale violence and dire issues. It is implied that such an interest, which from the critic’s point of view is trivial, makes the portrait of Gandhi in the novel unconvincing. Recently Ramesh Shrivastava has exclaimed in exasperation: “Gandhi comes as a match­maker–what a role for the father of the nation!” (“What is so great in R. K. Narayan?” Perspectives on R. K. Narayan. p. 207. ) These objections are plausible, because it is difficult to warm up to Sriram, and the novel does not give any convincing reasons for Bharati’s preference for him, unless it is blind love. However, they are characters given to us and we should see if the novel itself provides us with any convincing explanation for Gandhi’s interest in the young pair.

As if Narayan anticipated such an objection from his readers, he prepares them well in advance for this particular role of Gandhi in the novel. Early enough in the novel (Part Two) Sriram raises with Bharati the question of their getting married. When she insists on waiting for Gandhi’s sanction for it, the impatient Sriram himself asks whether it would be proper for them to put the Mahatma to trouble. Was not this too small a matter to be brought to his notice? As Sriram puts it, “He is too big to bother about us, Don’t trouble him with our affairs.” But Bharati is determined that she would marry only if Gandhi “sanctions” it, although she too admits that “Bapu has better things to do than finding a husband for me.” (p. 91)

Bharati’s insistence can be seen in the right perspective provided we understand the relationship between her and Gandhi as developed in the novel. Once that is understood, we could examine whether the role the Mahatma is made to play is consistent with his character as portrayed in the novel and as known to history. What Gandhi means to her, Bharati explains to Sriram: “You know, my father died during the 1920 movement. Just when I was born. When he learnt of it Bapuji, who had come down South, made himself my godfather and named me Bharati...” (p. 38) Significantly while all others in the novel including Sriram refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”, she always refers to him as “Bapu” (father). He regards her as his daughter and feels the same concern as a father feels for his child. This father-­daughter relationship between them is clearly established very early in the novel. Since Bharati sees in Gandhi a father, she is able to identify herself readily and whole-heartedly with his ideals and programme of action. She remains a true Gandhian and follows him even to Naokhali as a close companion of his. Therefore what could be more natural for a Hindu daughter than to seek and wait for her father’s approval for her marriage, and for him to give it? It would be a thorough misreading of what happens in the novel to regard Gandhi as a “match-maker”. He merely gives his consent to the young people whom he has known well and who have waited for it for years. And he is not being officious at all in offering to be the priest at their wedding.

This situation in the novel also illustrates how Gandhi affected the lives of several people, big and small, in those days of the freedom struggle. What is more, no place was too small, no person too insignificant for his attention. Nor did he regard himself as too big for anybody. His love was so abounding that hundreds of people sought and found in him solutions for their personal problems and solace for their private agonies.

Viewed as a whole, Narayan’s portrayal of Gandhi In WFM is partial, and one can only express a qualified approval of it. But within its limits it does draw our attention to some important traits of Gandhi’s personality. If some readers have found it to be rather conventional, it is because the novelist has tried to project the image of Gandhi as known to the ordinary and average man. Any other kind of portrayal, say, a close and critical analysis and interpretation of Gandhi’s personality, would have been inconsistent with the needs of the novel Narayan had set out to write. That he could have done a much better job of it even within the self-imposed limits need not prevent us from giving him his due for what he has achieved.

* Hereafter the title is abbreviated to WFM. Quotations from the text are from Waiting for the Mahatma, Indian Thought Publications, Mysore. All parenthetical page references are to this edition.

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