Here’s an addition to my collection of reviews of R.K. Narayan’s novels: Mr Sampath, the printer of Malgudi (first published in 1949). As usual with Narayan, what’s most pleasant is his style, the brisk eventfulness which he masterfully conveys, and how it takes you along an effortless journey through Malgudi’s sunburnt charm. This time it’s centering on… no, not the printer, but on another guy, an editor called Srinivas who in due course ties up with Sampath the printer, but really the story is told from Srinivas’ point of view and it starts and ends with him. The book covers two fields of activity, that of newspapers and publishing, and then that of film production.
Srinivas is the head of a small family, but lives at his brother’s hook, and even if the latter doesn’t grudge his bhai’s studious leisureliness (Srinivas has vowed to read all of the Upanishads), he one day comes to him and reminds him that it could be a good idea for him, now past thirty, to go out and look for work. Srinivas acquiesces, and, not knowing what to do, goes to his native town, (turns out to be Narayan's Malgudi ), to try his luck. He soon comes up with this idea of a paper which he would call The Banner, and dreams of educating the population thanks to the wisdom of ancient texts confronted to modern realities. He’s an educator, in a way. First he secures some lodging from a rather worrying and skin-tight landlord who thinks he's a ascetic, but anyway there isn’t much choice, and since for the time being he’s a bachelor (his wife and child are waiting for him to call them when he’s ready to receive them) he has to make do. Then he has to look for a printer, and after a few failures, falls upon this Sampath who seems at first like just the man he needs. Sampath has the boisterous, happy go lucky personality that matches Srinivas’ more sober and philosophical one.
The two strike a deal, on very advantageous terms for Srinivas, because there is never any question of money. Strangely, Srinivas can never go and look at the press, but he trusts his new partner. So with this arrangement the Banner starts issuing, and one of the best parts of the book begins, ie, the pressure of making everything fit together for the Friday, when the proofs go into print and Srinivas can enjoy a day’s rest, before a new week begins, and then starts anew the ordeal of preparing everything for the following week’s paper. Srinivas has a workplan: each day is devoted to one part of the journal, editorial, politics, local life, letters to the editor, etc. The letters, by the way, are a real drudgery: they start piling up in the garret where he works, and he can’t keep up. Most go unanswered but, thinks Srinivas, most are parasitic by-products of the new interest created by his journalistic effort: people write to him about everything, inform him about everything, hoping to use his paper as an information medium. One day, Sampath announces the arrival of his wife and boy, who had been writing many times to ask what had become of him, and had never got an answer! He transfers them to his poor lodgings, and of course his life starts getting more complicated, because he has to include his wife’s social standards into the complexities of his work schedule!
Other characters throng his days, especially a young bank clerk called Ravi, who’s desperately in love with a girl who has left Malgudi some time ago now, and who languidly dawdles her portrait for Srinivas one day. Upon seeing it, the editor staggers: it’s a real masterpiece: he has a genuine artist in front of him, in the guise of a dejected clerk! But Ravi’s plight is too great for his talent: nothing will make him abandon his dejection, no proposal to draw something from his artistic hand works. With Sampath, they rig plan after plan: all fail, and anger Ravi all the more. There’s also the episode between Srinivas and his landlord who has in mind to marry his grand-daughter with Ravi, and has come to see him on that account: many colourful dialogues are told in relationship to this. Then one day, a catastrophe occurs: for some obscure reason, the workers go on strike, and Sampath makes Srinivas understand that they can make one last issue of The Banner, but it’ll be over after that! In fact, some of the happenings in the book aren’t satisfactorily explained: we never know, for example, what those workers’ demands were, and if something might have been done to placate them, so work could resume… Were there workers? Was Sampath’s refusal to show the press to his friend a way to hide some personal involvement which he decided to cut short because he had some plan in mind that we aren’t told of?
Whatever: Srinivas is soon asked to join the team of high-flying professionals who have landed in Malgudi to shoot a film. Because he’s well-known as a writer, he’s promptly asked to write the story: he decides it’s going to be the story of Shiva’s killing of the god of love. His life changes a great deal from the moment he joins the film-team: true, he has to write the script, which turns out to be very severe in tone and inspiration, and then he has to suffer many alterations in terms of song inclusions, or dance moments, but otherwise he has much more time, and this is a way to discover more about his wife, his landlord, and there’s a good deal of light-heartedness there. On the sets one day arrives the heroine, a certain Shanti, from down South. She’s a beauty, and what’s striking is that she bears a surprising resemblance to the girl Ravi had fallen for. Sampath becomes her mentor, driving her around and looking after her needs. But soon it’s all too clear he’s fallen in love with her, and Ravi notices her (and them), naturally. From then on the situation is going to be more complicated, and the tone of the story weightier. The happy association of editor and printer is a thing of the past, and instead we have a sillier, gentrified Sampath and a sombre Ravi, prowling on the sets searching for the semblance of his great passion. Srinivas pulls out slowly, realizing the enterprise is going to its doom.
This moment comes during the shooting of the main scene, a dance scene with the killing of the god of love. Everybody is tense, a lot of money, too much, has already gone into the project and the people from the city who are in Malgudi to supervise the movie are tired and worried. Shanti, the southern beauty who plays Parvathi in the film is exhausted and overworked, tired of having to sit through so many takes. Then, just after the shooting begins, a devil jumps out of his box: Ravi lurches forward and snatches her away from everybody! In the commotion that follows, Srinivas understands everything is lost and the project has failed. They will not be able to buy the broken material and ruined sets, and Shanti has suffered a shock which will need weeks to recover from. But he fatalistically resigns himself to the situation and, as usual in Narayan’s stories, the closure comes from a sort of extraction of the hero from the strife and bustle of this world, and an understanding that truth and virtue lies elsewhere:
“In this maze (of human relationships) Srinivas walked about unscathed, because he had trained himself to view it all as a mere spectator. This capacity saved him from all the later shocks. He saw, without much flutter, the mangling that was going on with his story. The very process by which they mangled his theme attracted him, and he moved from room to room, studio to studio, through floor-space and setting, laboratory and sound processing and moviola, into projection room, watching, and he very soon accommodated himself to the notion that they were doing a picture of their own entirely unconnected with the theme he had written.” (p. 178)
An even more radical distance seizes him upon viewing a final incident in the story, which is Ravi’s weird exorcism, ordained because the poor painter has gone quite mad at having lost again the source of his passion. He’s surrounded by drum-beats and songs, and being whipped to chase the evil spirit out of him. Needless to say it won’t work, and the exercise is all in vain. But this is what Srinivas philosophically notices:
“Ravi winced under the repeated blows. Srinivas felt an impulse to cry out: “Stop it! Its is absurd and cruel.” But he found himself incapable of any effort. The recent vision had given him a view in which it seemed to him all the same whether they thwacked Ravi with a cane or whether they left him alone, whether he was mad or sane – all seemed unimportant and not worth bothering about. The whole of eternity stretched ahead of one; there was plenty of time to shake off all follies. Madness or sanity, suffering or happiness seemed all the same… It didn’t make the slightest difference in the long run –in the rush of eternity nothing mattered.” (p.208)
The fatalistic stance which with RK Narayan ends his story is in keeping with its beginning, when Srinivas, living off his brother’s food, was daily immersed in his reading of the Upanishads, and used to meditate on their traditions and: “as he grew absorbed in it he forgot his surroundings” (p. 12). Compared to the truth and light coming from meditated ancient wisdom, what can present action contain of value? The hustle and bustle of worldly pursuits are finally useless and void when pitted against the eternal facts which will always govern the affairs of men. The only sensible attitude is to understand this unchangeable order. Yet Narayan is so keen to show us the tenderly comings and goings of his fellow-men! His books are so full of their lively cares and worries! How can we reconcile the two opposite dimensions of a life so full and yet so empty? I suppose that the two coexist because this is what human life is made of: a rush of time into a rush of eternity. Only eternity takes a longer time to rush…