Raman's Aunty: Character Analysis - The Painter of Signs

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      Raman's aunt is the next important female character in the novel. She is old, somewhere between seventy-five and eighty years of age. She is patient, tolerant, self-abnegating, tender-hearted and respectful towards the age-old, inherited social and spiritual values, religious beliefs and faith. These traits of her personality are typical of Narayan's depiction of old grannies and aunts in his other novels as well. The aunt's name is Laxmi which means, in the Hindu mythology, the goddess of wealth. The traditional religious belief in the goddess of wealth makes her a welcome visitor to any house, she visits, in her village during her childhood. Her father is a priest who performs ceremonial rituals on various occasions. He brings home gifts of coconut, vegetables, sugarcane, rice and sometime a cow gifted to him by some person, as a cow gifted to a Brahmin is considered a pious good deed on the part of the giver. According to this belief, this act will help the giver in crossing the river which one has to ford through after death. She is married to a police head-constable in a nearby village. But unfortunately, he dies too young leaving her a barren, widowed woman. Since then, she has been living the life of a widow as according to a traditional Hindu custom remarriage of a widowed woman is not permissible. Thus, the saga of her life has been one of rigorous self-discipline patience and an unshakable faith in the Hindu religious scriptures.

Her daily routine of life is very regimented and systematically programmed. She never misses going to the temple of Ganesha in the evening where the pundit recites to the audience the holy anecdotes from the Hindu scriptures like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One night, she gets very late in coming back home from the temple because the pundit has taken a long time in completing the narration of Lord Krishna's marriage with Rukmani and she cannot afford to leave unless she has heard this sacrosanct episode in its complete length.
Raman's Aunty

      Her daily routine of life is very regimented and systematically programmed. She never misses going to the temple of Ganesha in the evening where the pundit recites to the audience the holy anecdotes from the Hindu scriptures like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One night, she gets very late in coming back home from the temple because the pundit has taken a long time in completing the narration of Lord Krishna's marriage with Rukmani and she cannot afford to leave unless she has heard this sacrosanct episode in its complete length. She maintains a Puja room in the house where the images of gods and goddesses are respectfully installed for being worshipped by her daily. This part of her diurnal duties reflects the deep-rooted religious faith of the old aunt. During her time of leisure in the afternoon, she attends to the ladies who visit her for taking her useful advice about their different affairs and problems. She always has a word of advice for each, whatever the problem one has. It may be related to someone's ailment, domestic tangle or any other matter. Barring these two engagements, the whole of her day-time is devoted to the fulfilment of her homely duties which mainly concern the job of looking after Raman's needs of feeding him well and keeping him physically healthy and in a happy state of mind. Her own needs are very limited. She has been taking one meal a day for the last many years. She devotes everyday a lot of time in purchasing provisions from Chettiar shop so that the stocks in her house do not get depleted. In this way, she keeps a very busy schedule.

      Like any other old lady, Raman's aunt is in the habit of narrating the reminiscences of her past life. She is very fond of telling and retelling repeatedly to Raman an episode about her grandfather who disappears from his village name Kumbhakonam leaving his wife alone behind him there. He reaches Poona and lives there in the company of a concubine. Her childless grandmother happens to go to Poona while on a pilgrimage with a party and perchance meets her husband there: She forces him to comeback with her to the village. He agrees to it with the condition that his concubine will also accompany him. But on the way back to their village, her grandmother enters into a pond of water and threatens to drown herself there if he carries his concubine with him. Hence, he has to leave his concubine there and comes back home. After his return, Raman's aunt's grandmother gives birth to several children. She dies at the age of seventy five. Her grandfather remarries a seventeen-year-old girl in anger in retaliation against one of his sons. The girl and her parents murder him for the lust of getting the money he owns. In the same vein, she tells Raman about her life of girlhood. She asks him to note down the story of her life which will bring him more money than what he earns by writing sign-boards. She starts telling him like this:

"I was not born seventy-five or eighty year old." She continued,when was ten years old, I remember clearly that I could just reach up to a mirror hung on the wall in our house, to arrange my hair, which was wavy and streamed down to my hips. People came and admired me in those days."

      Under the force of this habit, she repeats to Daisy the same reminiscent memories about her Poona grandfather with equal fervour and gusto when the latter comes to visit their house in order to meet Raman for making payment of his bill for writing a sign-board for the Family Planning Centre. The old aunt catches time to tell all this to Daisy as Raman is lying on the mat taking his afternoon siesta and Daisy has to wait till he gets up to meet her. The old aunt is courteous, hospitable and kind towards her as she serves her with a cup of coffee and Daisy enjoys meeting her and talking to her sitting alongside her on the mat on the kitchen door.

      The old aunt possesses infinite love and self-effacing, tender-hearted concern for the welfare of Raman. The major part of her day's routine is devoted to catering to Raman's needs of feeding him well. She has wholly identified her happiness with Raman's happiness. After his return from three week's itinerary with Daisy through villages surrounding Malgudi in connection with family planning programme, Raman remains sullen, crest-fallen, reticent and confined to his own room in depression. This mood is caused by Daisy's threat to him that she will get him arrested by police on their arrival back to Malgudi. His over-exercised imagination puts him in perpetual fright of getting arrested at any moment and then being paraded hand-cuffed by the police through Ellamman street. The people, standing by Chettiar shop, will pass disparaging comments on him for his fault of over-reaching the limits of his status as a painter of sign-boards. His old aunt will feel very depressed at such an unseemly sight. He ceases being as much vocal with her as he has been usualy in the past. Raman's aunt is prompt enough to see through this change in Raman and feels worried in her heart of hearts. She fears that the company of that siren i.e. Daisy has done this damage to him. Still, she does not allow her anxiety to get explicitly reflected in Raman's presence. Rather she gives a look of normalcy by keeping herself engaged in her usual domestic chores. She feels relieved only when Raman starts moving outside on his business errands and regains his normal habit of talking to her.

      The whole-hearted and concentrated attention she has paid to Raman in the last thirty years becomes clear to the latter when before leaving on her pilgrimage, she gives him instructions how to keep the different household provisions in good condition. Only then, Raman comes to realise the enormity and strenuousness of her effort in keeping the household going in correct order for his sake only. He feels moved and importunate  repeatedly to her aunt not to go and in case she has to go she should come back after the completion of her pilgrimage. But the aunt expresses her helplessness for coming back. She is always patient and tolerant towards Raman even when he speaks to her in a mocking or teasing tone out of his peevish mood.

      The old aunt is tolerant towards Raman's wishes despite her orthodoxy. She disapproves of Raman's proposal to marry Daisy about whose caste, sect and religion she is not very clear. Her illiterate, orthodox and innately simple mind cannot reconcile with such an uncustomary and un-conventional marriage arrangement. She suspects her to be a Christian as her name goes to suggest it. But for the sake of happiness of Raman she desists from obstinately sticking to her position. She finds a facile escape from the situation in deciding to proceed on a religious journey leaving everything behind to the care of Raman and thus allows him full freedom to manage his affairs in his own way after her departure. The void to be caused by his aunt's going away forever is realised for the first time by Raman. He is impressed by her whole-time attention to keep him in a happy mood. Raman expresses this new awareness about his aunt's dedication in these words:

"He had taken so much for granted all these years. He was like a plant, tended with care, unaware of the continuous labour involved for the gardener. While he had been happily painting sign-boards or gossiping at The Boardless or gallvinating with Daisy, so much had been done backstage to keep him alive. It'd been a lifetime of dedication for another being actually."

      Ruminating on his aunt's meticulous care and drudgery involved in keeping a house in order, Raman contrasts Daisy with her and wonders, "How would Daisy fit into this scheme? Would she stand beside a cow at dawn, or keep the oil jar aired regularly? He adds that it is unthinkable in case of Daisy. Raman is overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude towards his aunt for her silent, submissive and selfless service rendered to him all these thirty long years. A feeling of contrition seizes him because he has failed to realise all this earlier.

      The old aunt's abstemious way of life fits in the pattern of values she believes in and carries them out practically in her conduct and behaviour. She reveres the tradition, beliefs, customs and rituals connected with religion or social institutions like marriage etc. because these have been hallowed by age-old, time-honoured heritage of the ancestors. When confronted with the pressure of modernity on these traditions and beliefs in the context of Raman's proposal to marry Daisy in an unconventional way, she is not ready to compromise with her concepts at an age of seventy-five or eighty years. However, she does not wish to upset Raman's apple-cart which is very dissimilar from Chandran's mother's reactions in The Bachelor of Arts. She does not want to come in the way of Raman's happiness. Hence, she decides to proceed on a pilgrimage in the company of her neighbour who will look after her well throughout the journey. Their pilgrimage's itinerary is to reach Badrinath, Kedarnath with its Shiva lingam made of ice and then down to Benaras along the bank of the Ganges which is considered to be the most sacred and the holiest of holy rivers in the Hindu traditionally inherited spiritual-cum-religious and mythological beliefs and convictions. Her decision is also consistent with the Indian view of renunciation of the temporal world at such a stage in one's life for the sake of meditation and self-realisation so that one may enter the other world (divine existence) creditably after one's death. The old aunt, therefore, expresses her will not to return home. She will like to terminate her pilgrimage at Kashi and live there till the end of the remaining years of her life so that she may breathe her last on the sacred bank of the Ganges. Such a death is considered as the most desired and auspicious one in the Hindu thought. Raman becomes sentimental at the thought of her departure forever. She tries to calm him down and expresses her faith to him. She says:

"It is like this, my boy. At my age, with a few years left, people do not generally want to return. A visit to Kashi is the end. I may live for ten days or ten years or wenty, it is immaterial how long one lives after this stage. It is the ambition of everyone of my generation to conclude this existence at Kashi, to be finally dissolved in the Ganges. That is the most auspicious end to one's life."

      Raman makes preparations for his old aunt's pilgrimage after getting convinced that she is not going to change her mind. He hands over the whole sum of money to be spent on the journey to the Bank Accountant's garrulous wife who is his aunt's companion. He has drawn this amount from his own bank account. He feels it his duty atleast to do this little act in service to the fulfilment of her aunt's cherished desire.

      The old aunt is complacent and deeply committed to her religious beliefs. She feels thrilled and ecstatic at the prospect of her reaching Kashi and staying on there in the presence of Vishwanath. They will allow her food and a corner for sleeping and resting in a common hall on a payment of twenty rupees per month. In a sense of unusual gratification, she says, "But who will want greater shelter than the temple and the River Ganga"? The simplicity of the old aunt's life and her requirement for minimal wants are borne out by the limited possession, she carries, in a jute bag while launching on her pilgrimage. She packs up her jute bag with a couple of white sarees, a little brass casket containing sacred ash for smearing on her-forehead, a coral rosary for prayers, a book of sacred verse and two tiny silver images of Krishna and Ganesha given to her by her father, a shawl and a small bundle of parched rice. She pleads that she wants nothing more than living on parched rice, buttermilk and bananas which can be available in any part of the country. Thus, Raman's old aunt epitomises the Hindu view which consists in austere living and ultimate deliverance through religious-cum-spiritual values.

      Both Raman's old aunt and Sriram's granny in Waiting for the Mahatma share common Hindu vision of human existence. Both of them wish to terminate their journey of life on the sacred bank of the Ganges. This is the ideal sort of death for both of them. They have lived a life of extreme simplicity, religious faith, rigorously disciplined routine and self-satisfaction achieved through selfless service to their dependent children i.e. Raman and Sriram respectively. Their own worldly wants are reduced to the barest necessities of life which are just enough to keep their body and soul together. They are characteristically Narayan's portraits of the old, respectable, lovable, orthodox and self-complacent women depicted in his novels. They are a class in themselves.

      The Bank Accountant's wife, with whom Raman's aunt is going on the pilgrimage, is hefty with a bun of half-greying hair tied up high over her nape, large cheeks, heavy jowl and turmeric-splashed face. Seeing her toughly built-up personality, Raman feels satisfied that the lady is the type who will push her way through and lead his aunt up the Himalayas and take care of her. She speaks in such a loud tone that the conversation passing between Ramani and this lady can be audible in the opposite row of houses.

      She is garrulous and indulges in irrelevant talk about Daisy etc. Raman has come to know from her about their pilgrimage arrangements. After beating about the bush for long, she comes to the point and enlightens Raman about their plan. She tells him that they will leave on Wednesday next, five of them and two sons of another family to be their escort. A payment of six hundred and seventy five rupees immediately will settle everything. The money is to be handed over to her and she will take care of the rest of the things. Raman goes to his bank and comes back to her with the required sum of money taken from his own bank account and leaving his old aunt's money intact in her bank account. He considers it his duty to show this little bit of magnanimity and servitude to his aunt who has so single-mindedly cared about his needs for keeping him happy and healthy. He, immediately after that, takes leave of this lady and feels relieved. The over bearing garrulity of this lady is expressed in a vein of humour in these words spoken by Ramar, "It is the extreme garrulity of this person that must be sending the accountant bouncing off the bank so early each day." He wonders how his aunt is going to stand her company for months to come during their holy journey. However, he notices in her a good point as she has been his aunt's close companion for decades on errands like shopping, outings and going in the evening regularly to temple and giving her advice on many matters.

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