Asceticism in R. K. Narayan's Novel The Guide

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      R. K. Narayan’s novel, The Guide is a story of a man who deceives society by passing for a spiritual man. It can be compared in this respect with Bhabani Bhattacharya’s He who Rides a Tiger. In both the novels, the man is carried away by his deception until a point comes when it is difficult to undo the enormous lie. But the superficial similarity hides a very fundamental difference. “If both these novels deal with the theme of a man wearing a mask, in one the man at the end throws away the mask and goes back where he began. In the other the man finds it more and more difficult to tear off the mask until he finds that the mask has become his face. In Bhattacharya’s book Kalu’s deception is a deliberate act of revenge against society. Raju in The Guide, on the other hand, drifts into the role of a sadhu willy-nilly, and once he finds himself cast in the role of an ascetic he attempts to perform the act with gusto, partly for the sake of self-preservation, partly because it suits his personality wonderfully.”

      In the first stage of his career Raju is a tourist guide and a shopkeeper; in the second role he is an entrepreneur and an impresario and manager. In the third stage of his career he happens to be a convict, an ideal prisoner. It is during his last role that he is a sadhu. This sadhu'ship is thrust upon him. It happens to him. “Not once does he deliberately try to pass himself off for a holy man, but when he finds that people want to believe in his spiritual power, he cannot disappoint them. He wants to tell the villagers of his shady past, of his stay in the jail, but he cannot: “It looked as though he would be hurting the others’ deepest sentiments if he so much as whispered the word.” Once he is accepted as a sadhu, Raju, with characteristic thoroughness pays attention to details like his appearance, his beard, his fluency in uttering mystifying statements. As in his earlier roles, he learns his trade while practising it. “As a guide Raju had learnt through some empiric lessons in popular psychology what kind of sentiment went down well with the tourists....” (M. Mukherjee).

      It is Raju’s habit to perform whatever role is assigned to him by Fate perfectly and nicely. He has a ready wit that helps him in all walks and phases of life. The same ready wit helps him in the final role of his life as an ascetic. He soon learns that the essence of sainthood seems to be one’s ability to utter mystifying statements. When the villagers talk about the crocodile in the river, Raju says:

“What can a crocodile do if your mind is clear and your conscience is untroubled....”

      Another act that confirms Raju’s career as a sadhu is his establishment of a night school in the temple. This school becomes the centre around which the village people gather every evening to listen to Raju’s discourses and story tellings. These evening sessions grow in popularity until Raju becomes a public figure. But the idea of school too originates quite by accident. Even the final episode of fasting originates in a similarly insignificant and casual manner.

      During the prolonged drought the nerves of the villagers are tense, and some minor quarrel flares up into a riot. This news upsets Raju, not because he is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the village people, but because he is afraid that a disturbance might attract public notice to the village, and if the newspaper reporters and policemen arrive there, Raju’s identity might be disclosed. It is a purely selfish reason that makes him announce that if people go on doing such foolish acts, he would not eat. The young man to whom this message is given is not very bright, and when he goes back to the village, he gives a completely different version of the message. “The Swami will not eat until it rains.” The others believe him because only a few days ago Raju has told them of saint who brought the rains down by his fast.

      As a result of this and in excessive zeal his disciples stop bringing him all food. This has an ironic side to it, because food had been the first link that had connected Raju with the inhabitants of the Mangala village. He had accepted the role of a sadhu because it gave him unconditional and free supply of food. But the very thing he was afraid of happened. They gathered round Raju for darshan, and brought him their reverence but no food. Now his disciples where having a twenty-four hour vigil on him, and consequently he could not have food even stealthily. Before this stage is reached, being a sadhu has merely been a bit of play-acting for Raju and by his excellent histrionic talent he had even persuaded himself of his authenticity:

....he began to feel that it was but right they should touch his feet; as a matter of fact it seemed possible that he himself might bow low, take the dust of his own feet and press it to his eyes. He began to think that his personality radiated a glory.

      Like Kalu the blacksmith in Bhabani Bhattacharya’s He who Rides a Tiger, Raju had nearly got convinced of his own exalted status. But this was a familiar feeling for him. He had been a good orator. One time he himself said, “Heaven knows where I had found all this eloquence. I delivered such a lecture on the importance of our culture and the place of the dance in it that they very simply had to accept what I said.”

      Playing the part of saint he had at least reached a stage when the situation was no longer under his control. During the time of famine he did not know what he was doing. He had no control or choice. He realized that he had worked himself into a position from which he could not get out. “He now saw the enormity of his own creation. He had created a giant with his puny self.”

      As a Sadhu Raju had to undergo an act of vicarious suffering to purify the sins of others. It was a risky and dangerous task. But he did it well. During the early days of his role as a saint, he assumed and feigned that role due to the needs of his stomach. During the last days, however, it was the faith of the people that compelled him to act as a sadhu. Neither the fear of being caught, nor the necessity of bread could have made him a perfect saint, but his faith and the faith of the people in him converted the convict into a saint. It has been happening in every country and every land, especially in India that even the convicts have proved to be great saints. For example, Balmiki and Eklavya. “He was moved by the recollection of the big crowd of women and children touching his feet.” At last, says Menakshi Mukherjee, “the collective faith of the people is transforming Raju from what he really is, into a worthy object of its devotion. Towards the end Raju loses the feeling of an actor performing an act; the act becomes the reality, the mask becomes the man, and Raju the guide turns into a guru.”

      At his eleventh hour, he really becomes a Sadhu, and the question whether his fasting really brought the rains down or not is an irrelevant question. What is more important is Raju’s moment of transcending his limited self. He himself speaks out:

If by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly? For the first time in his life he was making earnest effort; for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing something in which he was not personally interested.

      This is a moment of illumination, a moment in which an individual acquires the power to go beyond his self. At the beginning of the fast, he says, “I am prepared to fast for the sake of your people and do anything if I can help this country, but it is to be done only by a saint. I am no saint.”

      The sainthood that Raju has created out of his deception ultimately transcends his control and obliterates his former self. The theme gains its strength through repetition, because earlier, in the Rosie episode, the same pattern has been established.

      To quote Meenakshi Mukherjee, “The ideal of asceticism runs through Indo-Anglian fiction as a recurrent and compulsive motif. Even writers who are seemingly indifferent to the spiritual aspect of life have not been able to ignore it altogether because this is a pervasive cultural ideal in India. We have seen how sometimes a saint figure in the novel is made to embody this difficult ideal. The ascetic however rarely becomes the central character of a narrative. Usually he remains in the background, influencing the other characters and shaping the events. This influence can be either positive as in The Cat and Shakespeare or Possession or The Flames of the Forest, destructive and negative as in the novels of Mulk Raj Anand where the hypocrisy of pseudo spiritual men is presented in a spirit of righteous indignation. In some other novels the man in the saffron robe is seen obviously as a charlatan in disguise, and writers like Desani and Nagarajan have in their different ways exploited the comic possibilities of the situation. Occasionally the role of the holy man appears complex and ambiguous as in A Silence of Desire where a guru is seen not only as a spiritual force, but also as a person who satisfies certain social needs. There are at least two novels in which the study of the significance of the saffron robe is extended even further to include the psychological changes it brings about in the wearer. The Guide and He who Rides a Tiger, both deal with men whose holiness is only a convenient disguise, but in both these novels the men undergo such transformation that the fraud ceases to be a fraud. Narayan and Bhattacharya deal with this apparently similar theme in totally different ways. The ascetic in a saffron robe is a readymade symbol in Indian literature, and in their several uses of this symbol the novelists reveal a great deal of themselves and of their art.”

University Questions

“The ideal of asceticism runs through Indo-fiction as a recurrent and compulsive motif.” (Meenakshi Mukherjee). In the light of this statement evaluate R.K. Narayan’s novel, The Guide.
The Guide is a story of man who deceives society by passing for a spiritual man. Discuss.
The Guide deals with the theme of a man wearing a mask, and his mask becomes his face. Comment and elucidate.

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