Humour and Comic Elements in R. K. Narayan Novels

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1. Comic Tone

      Though R.K. Narayan has written tragedies yet the tone of his novels is comic. Raju’s story of his love for Rosie the dancer, and his rise and fall as guide, lover and impresario are half comedy. This novelist does not end his novels on a pessimistic or disappointing note. The Guide ends neither at the time of Raju’s landing in jail for moral degradation, nor when Raju’s love affair with Rosie comes to an end at the discovery of the book published by Rosie’s husband. The novelist turns the imposter into a Sadhu, the mask becomes a reality.

2. Comic Vision Marked by Realism and Born of Ordinary Things of Life

      Narayan is neither a spiritualist nor a social reformer nor a pure writer of comedies. He is an observer of life and records life as it appear to him. It is neither purely tragic nor purely comic. It is the mixture of the two. So are his novels. Raju has his best days, he becomes a successful tourist guide, he enjoys the best of another’s wife, he becomes a very successful impresario, and above all, is worshipped like a true Sadhu and saint and dies like a martyr. But at the same time he has his moments of agony and guilt and sin. He involves with a woman who belongs to somebody else. He becomes too much possessive, he picks up a quarrel with his mother and maternal uncle, he forges Rosie’s signature, and becomes a jail bird. All these things are ingredients of a true comic vision. Narayan’s comic vision is marked by realism; it is a vision neither of a buffoon nor of a very serious philosopher, but of a writer who has studied and observed life closely and realistically.

3. Blend of the Tragic and the Comic

      To Narayan life is neither purely a story of sins nor purely of virtues: it is a blend of the saintly and the sinful. That is what happens to Raju. All the elements of a good crime story are found in The Guide. And yet the author turns the story into a first-rate social story. We see Raju supplanting his lyrical first love by his own self-love. We see him as a petty thief in court and also as a pseudosaint fasting and muttering his futile prayers for rain. But Narayan shows how love and luxury were rewarded by a sort of incorrigible innocence. This pensive comedy, like all other novels of Narayan, is a novel of the dreaming saint. Narayan has nothing but compassion for this misguided guide. Narayan does not pass any judgment in this tragi-comedy because Narayan is one of the most objective writers of today.

4. Humour and Comedy in Events, Characters and Language

      Not only in the situations and events but also in the characters and their manners and their dialogues there is a touch of humour and comedy. Everything happens to Raju. He did not want to be a guide, but he became so on frequent enquiries from visitors. He did not want to be an impresario, but he became one because Rosie, when abandoned by her husband, came to him. He did not wish to be a saint but sainthood was forced upon him by Velan and the villagers of Mangala village. Raju’s father bought a horse and a carriage, and the disposal of the same by his father and the kind of the shopkeeper he is are all mixed with the sweets of humour and laughter. Raju’s mother and his maternal uncle, even the taxi driver, Gagur, do provide some humour. Raju’s conversation with the children like a big man, a villager’s approach to him for the miraculous cure of his daughter so that she may agree to marry the boy he had liked are the testimonies of Narayan’s comic vision. But above all these are his wit, his humour and the vision of life which sees not only evil and guilt and sin but also virtue and good.

5. Limited Touch of Pathos

      In Narayan’s novels, pathos is limited. He is essentially a comic writer from whose eyes nothing incongruous escapes. The Dark Room is the only novel that falls outside the usual pattern of his fiction. Since the novelist feels that domestic harmony is a necessary basis for cosmic harmony, he detests social sharks like Ramani who commits adultery and insults their wedded spouses. Savitri’s devotion to her husband and children coupled with her lack of education rendered her. helpless. Although married to a rich and healthy and successful man she was unhappy and the whole novel is tinged with a sense of doom, and inescapable failure that attends the life of a woman of her temperament. Mr. Sampath also reached a critical, almost tragic moment when Ravi the psychotic painter tried to kidnap Shanti, the woman of his dream, from the studio. Sampath’s own involvement in the film industry and infatuation with the heroine were almost tragic but he came out of this crisis safe and a little wiser, although psychologically shocked. The whole atmosphere of The Man-Eater of Malgudi is charged with terror, but all of a sudden the atmospheric tenseness dissolves when Vasu, the taxidermist, got killed with his own slap on his temple while attacking the mosquito. In Waiting for the Mahatma, the death of Mahatma Gandhi comes like a bolt from the blue and apparently shatters the hope of Shriram and Bharati, but the novelist does not allow the readers to feel that human life is insignificant. Bharati’s loyalty and obedience to the Mahatma and Sriram’s love for Shanti do enliven the writer’s comic vision even in this tragic novel. In The Guide also the story of the hero’s death is tinged with the glory of a martyr, and thus the attention is diverted from tragedy to sacrificial aspect of the story. In The English Teacher, though the teacher’s wife dies yet he is able to communicate with her spirit.

6. Narayan Creates Humour by Exposing the Absurdity of Human Situation

      Narayan believes that man is the actor, and that he should perform his role well. That is why Raju does everything very sincerely. He proves to be a successful guide. In his love for Rosie he is quite warm. As an impresario he is quite popular and successful. In his capacity as a prisoner too he is an ideal prisoner and performs the role and duties of a prisoner thoroughly well. During his last phase, he is a successful Sadhu, although he has accepted this role unwillingly. Narayan views life as a complex affair and by focussing attention on the absurdity of human situation as well as rationality he maintains that nothing abides and everything is accidental — fame, power, and money. Man can attempt, even at the cost of his life, but will not understand the mystery of life.

7. Role of Fate Vital in Shaping Narayan’s Novels

      There is recurrence of the role of Fate in Narayan’s novels. This is fully illustrated by Raju. Everything happens to him. He never looked for acquaintances, they somehow came looking for him. He never wanted to be a guide but accidentally frequent enquiries from the visitors made him a Railway Guide. Raju’s narrative of his life till his landing in jail is pervaded by a sense of fatalism and Raju is more a bewildered man at the queer and accidental experiences than rendered helpless. His sense of humour and ability to put himself at a distance for review and analysis makes his story a delineation of Narayan’s comic vision. Man is essentially puny and his self-esteem and vanity are the major forces that make him get involved in variegated experiences and it is through the apprehension of the ordinary that the mystery of life can be understood. Narayan knows that life is routine and on the whole dull, but he also knows that the possibilities of life are immense and those who translate imagination into reality are also ordinary men and women.

8. A Novelist in the Tradition of Humorists

      It would be fit to rate Narayan as a novelist of humour par excellence. As a humorist, he is with Fielding and Dickens on the one hand and with Chaucer on the other. His humour has a universal quality, and it places him “in the main stream of the great comic tradition.” In fact, he shares his comic vision with the world’s great humorists from Chaucer to modern times.

9. The Essential Quality of Narayan’s Humour

      The essential quality of Narayan’s humour was observed by Graham Greene in his Introduction to The Bachelor of Arts, “a humour strange to our fiction, closer to Chekhov than to any English writer, with the same underlying sense of beauty and sadness.” The likeness between the two great humorists comes out even more pointedly in Harvey Breit’s comment: “Narayan is to India what Chekhov was to Russia; he has the same dispassionate mind and compassionate heart.” And Anthony West underscores Narayan’s kinship with the great Russian humorists when he describes him as “a writer of Gogol’s stature.”

      Narayan has the keen eye, the tolerant mind and the compassionate heart which constitute the basic equipment of a true humorist. “Narayan’s comic vision is one of his great gifts,” says Rosanne Archer, and it enables him to perceive the comic and the incongruous in the ordinary. His observation on two of his lovable child-characters in Swami and Friends, Swami and Samuel, may well be taken as expressive of his own comic vision: “The bond between them was laughter. They were able to see together the same absurdities and incongruities in things. The most trivial and unnoticeable things to others would tickle them to death.” Narayan has preserved this freshness of vision throughout his long creative career. (Shiv K. Gilra)

10. Development and Manifestation of His Comic Genius

      The basic comic situation in Narayan’s novels is one of deviation from the normal. The Bachelor of Arts struck the first significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran, and with each successive novel it grew into Narayan’s signature. With Mr. Sampath Narayan’s comic genius became more manifest and in The Financial Expert it blossomed into maturity. Then came The Guide, “a remarkable example of the especially difficult genre to which most of Narayan’s work belongs, the serious comedy.” (William Walsh, “Sweet Mangoes and Malt Vinegar,” in Indo English Literature, ed. by K. K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, Ghaziabad, p. 129.) As mentioned by Gilra, in The Guide he treats with extraordinary skill the stuff of tragedy in terms of comedy “and therein consists his unique achievement in Indian fiction.” (C. D. Narasimhiah, The Swan and the Eagle.)

11. Essential Qualities of His Humour

      Besides ironic comedy of protagonism, a mixture of the serious and the comic or his “fine sense of the tragicomic” (Henry Miller), the element of fantasy is noticeable in his comic vision, e.g. in The Bachelor of Arts. His characters such as Sampath, Margayya and Raju present his serious ironic comedy of protagonism. Even a demoniac character Vasu, the man-eater in The Man-eater of Malgudi, is not without an element of the comical and the grotesque. The Vendor of Sweets is richly comic in the incongruities of its central character, Jagan, the ageing Sweet vendor, The humour in The Painter of Signs consists chiefly in Narayan’s mocking treatment of sexual passion growing into an obsession.

      Nevertheless, “Narayan’s humour is genial, urbane and tolerant. It is essentially free from the satiric spirit of condemnation and censure. It aims at portraiture rather than exposure of human nature. As a comic writer, he is closer in spirit to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens than to Swift, Voltaire and Thackeray.” (Shiv K. Gilra). Prof. Gilra further writes: “His comic vision is thus a view of life with a frame of reference. It has its roots in a traditional ethos and a scale of values. And these values have a special reference to the institution of the family which constitutes Narayan’s sensibility — milieu. Evolution of “a proper detachment” or dissociation while leading an embodied and temporal life has been the summum bonum of the Indian philosophy of synthesis. It has been handled in terms of comedy by Narayan.”

12. Humour in The Guide

      The whole vision of the novel is marked by a comic tone. The novel does not end on any pessimistic note but after the impostor has been turned into a Sadhu. The vision here is marked by realism: it is neither of a buffoon nor of a very serious philosopher. It is of a writer who has studied and observed life closely and realistically. It is a blend of both the tragic and the comic. Everything happens to Raju, he himself does not want to do what happens to him. Narayan thus creates humour by exposing the absurdity of human situation. The way sainthood is forced upon Raju in itself is comic. Raju’s conversation with the children like a big man, a villager’s approach to him for the miraculous cure of his daughter so that she may agree to marry the boy he had liked are the testimonies of Narayan’s comic vision. Thus, in The Guide we have the humour of situations, of characters, and of words. Wit is an essential ingredient of intellectual humour, and we find a lot of it in The Guide, especially in Raju’s role as a guide and as a sadhu.


      In the words of S.C. Harrex, “Narayan’s comic vision illuminates numerous weighty themes: the place of woman in a traditional society, the disruptive influences of femme fatale and the strongman destroyer of orthodoxy, the moral limitations of a materialistic way of life, the consequences of flouting accepted codes, and the psychological’ and ethical implications of such Hindu concepts as the ascetic purification yoga, renunciation, non-attachment, maya and the cyclic progressions of life and death.”

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