Malathi: Character in the Novel - The Bachelor of Arts

Also Read

      These are three female characters namely, Malathi, Chandran's mother and Susila in the novel, The Bachelor of Arts. Malathi is not described as a person in detail. There is no direct, active involvement on her part in the development of the action of the novel. She speaks nowhere during the total course of the narrative. Still, she is felt as ubiquitous recurring almost till the close of the novel through references and memories mentioned by the protagonist, Chandran. She is instrumental in making or unmaking the chain of events that occur in the life of the protagonist after having obtained his graduation degree from Albert Mission College. Against this backdrop, Malathi's importance as a character lies in her all-pervasive influence on Chandran's course of life. The whole gamut of experiences gone through by him is consequential to Chandran's one-sided optical infatuation with this girl.

The love-affair between Malathi and Chandran is more of an "optical communion" than of real courtship. His fascination towards her is at first sight during one of his evening ramblings at the river bank. He feels spell-bound by her green saree and by all that she does while playing with her younger sister in the sand.

      The love-affair between Malathi and Chandran is more of an "optical communion" than of real courtship. His fascination towards her is at first sight during one of his evening ramblings at the river bank. He feels spell-bound by her green saree and by all that she does while playing with her younger sister in the sand. This sudden, overpowering infatuation of Chandran is described like this:

Chandran had been in the habit of staring at every girl who sat on the sandy river bank, but he had never felt before the acute interest he felt in this girl now. He liked the way she sat, he liked the way she played with her sister, he liked her way she dug her hands into the sand and threw it in the air.

      After this chance encounter, Malathi's fascination keeps his mind pre-occupied with feverish thought about her. He goes on making mental conjectures about her name, age, caste and whether married or unmarried. This frenzy of fascination makes him feel indignant at the obstacles put up by considerations of "community, caste, sects, sub-castes and still further divisions" in the way of marriage and in that mood he resolves that if India is "to attain salvation these watertight divisions must go." Malathi's look brings about a whirlwind agitation in protagonist's state of mind. He is not able to have proper sleep during that night because of the endless train of thoughts passing through his mind about the girl. He meets her again in the next evening. He gets embroiled info an internal struggle within himself. He becomes extremely self-conscious in her presence. Despite his intense desire to have a steady close look at her, he fails miserably to do so. He can look at her from a distance but when he comes close he feels "self conscious and awkward, and while passing actually in front of her he bent his head, fixed his gaze on the ground and walked fast." He does not dare to look longer at her for he is obsessed with the feeling that he is being observed by the whole crowd on the river bank. For about a month, he continues going to the river bank and enjoying the sight of the girl of his love. He makes up his mind to open some dialogue with her but fails miserably in doing so. He is hindered by thoughts of his own making such as "a man of twenty-two going up and conversing with a grown-up girl, a perfect stranger, would be affording a very uncommon sight to the public." The failure to have a vocal courtship with the girl whom one loves so much reveals the traditional conservative outlook of the Indian middle-class society on sex relationships. It is a social system where there is a complete segregation between a boy and a girl, and a boy speaks to a girl only as a sister. It is impossible for a boy to address the girl he has fallen in love with directly and it is inconceivable that he should introduce himself to her. That is why, Chandran walks up and down in front of Malathi by the river bank as though she were behind a wall of glass (which in a way she is). This provides a striking similarity between the personal sex life of the protagonist and that of the author. William Walsh's remarks on the author's personal sex life are relevant and revealing. He says:

"Narayan's love life was made up of intense, one-sided affairs with any girl his eye fell on, a girl in a green saree with a pale oval face seen passing through the street or a squat, lumpy girl glimpsed drying her hair, or a girl who smiled at him in the college, an English penfriend, or even the middle-aged British woman doctor who came to treat his mother."

      Malathi's disappearance from the river bank for days together upsets Chandran. However, one day when she comes to the river bank, he follows her to her house in Mill Street keeping a distance of half a furlong. Her house is situated in front of the Indian Modern Lodge, a hotel where Chandran's collegemate, Mohan, lives. He comes to know through Mohan her name, her father's name, her caste and the fact that she is unmarried. He is satisfied with these preliminary details.

      The candid exposure of Chandran's mind to his parents to marry Malathi is viewed as something against the customary, established procedure of marriage. Before the marriage is settled, a complicated system of customs, rituals and negotiations has to be gone through. His mother sees his intention to marry not as a grown-up person's natural departure from the home but rather as an effort by an outsider to break into it. This reflects the parents traditional outlook about a boy's marriage. As per decorum and "time honoured practice" it is the bride's parents to initiate the proposal since they are thought socially as the inferior side. Departure from this convention will make Chandran's family a "laughing stock of the community." Much of Chandran's anguish is caused by his mother's unyielding opposition to any change in this principle of social propriety. As an alternative, the services of Ganapathi Sastrigal are requisitioned by Chandran's parents. He visits Malathi's house and proposes Chandran to her parents on his own behalf. The demands of caste, sub-caste and girl's suitability on the basis of her fairness are satisfied. Lastly, the horoscopes of the girl and the boy are to be matched. Horoscopes are exchanged. Despite a joint conference of Chandran's father, Malathi'a father and the astrologer, the tangle of incompatibility of the two horoscopes remains unresolved. Ultimately, the girl's parents return Chandran's horoscope with regret. As a last resort, Chandran leaves a letter with Mohan to be delivered to Malathi wherein he suggests to her to wait for marriage till the inauspicious period of three years is over. But Mohan does not find suitable chance for handing over that letter to Malathi. Her marriage is settled with her cousin and the festivities are going on in her house for the celebration of Marriage Notice when Chandran visits Mohan again. This episode illustrates the resilience and unassailability of the Indian social edifice built upon the inherited age-old traditions and customs and also how an individual is coerced into a clash and its consequential tension with this highly stratified social order.

      The failure to marry Malathi is a turning point in Chandran's life. It causes the protagonist to traverse through the area of strange, unfamiliar experiences. In a mood of frustration, he leaves Malgudi and reaches Madras to live with his uncle. When the train reaches Egmore Station, he changes his mind and decides not to go to his uncle's house. Hence, he evades the notice of his cousin who has come to the railway station to receive him. Hurriedly, he catches a cab and reaches a hotel where he meets a middle-aged rake named Kailas. Kailas takes him round the city in an orgy of drinking and prostitution. Somehow, he escapes and does not return to the hotel. Frustration renders him aimless. He reaches Mylapore and in a flick of thought gets his head shaved off by a barber sitting at the steps of the temple. Donned in ochrecoloured clothes, he takes to the life of a sanyasi and spends his days in aimless wanderings.

      The failure of Chandran's one-sided love-affair with Malathi leads to a radical transformation in the protagonist's way of life. Malathi is always haunting his mind. His change to a Sanyasi's clothes and way of life is an ineffectual effort on his part for escapism. Hence, he grows beard and the skin of his body becomes hard and rough. During his wanderings, he reaches a village, Kopal, where the simple-minded villagers take him to be a spiritual man. They give him food and revere him as a holy person. He is provided with gifts of fruits and milk and a lantern for light. They request him to stay there. At night when he is alone, he is caught into self-introspection. He indulges in self-accusation for the falsehood and charlatanism he is playing upon the innocent villagers. He calls himself "a cad, a fraud and a confidence trickster." Further, he thinks that he ought not "to feed his miserable stomach with food which he has neither earned nor, by virtue of spiritual worth, deserved." The author also underscores the fraud of his renunciation as a weak, self-deluding and cowardly escape from facing the harsh reality of life. The comments are stated thus:

He was different from the usual sanyasi. Others may renounce with a spiritual motive or purpose. Renunciation may be to them a means to attain peace or may be peace itself. They are perhaps dead in time, but they do live in eternity, But Chandran renunciation was not of that kind. It was an alternative to suicide. Suicide he would have committed but for its social stigma. Perhaps he lacked the barest physical courage that was necessary for it. He was a sanyasi because it pleased him to mortify his flesh. His renunciation was a revenge on society, circumstances and perhaps, too, on destiny.

      A process of metamorphosis in Chandran sets in. In his analytical mood, he ascribes his moral decline to his frailty in submitting to "silly infatuation" with Malathi. He realises the futility and illusion of love as he thinks, "There was no such thing, a foolish literary notion." He calls love "a scorching madness." This self-analysis enables him to overcome his weakness that has crept into him because of his failed love-affair with Malathi. His self-conquest leads him to come back to the world of reality from that of make-believe. He goes to the local post-master and confides in him the story of his life. He receives money from his father through a telegram. He gets his beard shaved off and changes from ochre-coloured clothes to the normal ones and returns to Malgudi. He takes up the job of a subscription collector for the Daily Messenger. He marries Susila who is fair and brings him handsome dowry too.

      Malathi in person or in absentia is thus inextricably connected with all that happens to the protagonist. She has gone deep into the recesses of his conscious or sub-conscious mind. His decision to marry Susila takes place after prolonged persuasion by his parents and his friend, Mohan. Even while deciding for Susila, he is comparing her with Malathi in his sub-conscious mind and finds her no less charming. Malathi as a character, though not delineated in a narrative manner, is crucial to the unfolding of the action of the novel. Since the unfructified one-sided optical infatuation with Malathi leads to the sequence of events taking place in Chandran's life. The author does not directly delineate Malathi. Hence, there is no mention of her personal attributes and characteristics. But uniquely, the episode of this one-sided love-affair in the novel works out the central theme in the protagonist's life which lies in a struggle to achieve, in Chandran's own words, "a life freed from distracting illusions and hysterics." Freedom from "illusions" means freedom from the age-old burden of indian traditions and orthodoxy and freedom from "hysterics" signifies achieving a rational, realistic, stable and resolute attitude-unclouded by illusory, sweeping and blinding force of emotions - to life and its concomitant tangles and adversities. So, Malathi's character can be viewed only through Chandran's experiences.

Previous Post Next Post