119 years of Trust BOOK REVIEW
Sunday, December 26, 1999
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Press as seen from within
Review by Kuldip Kalia
Press as Leader of Society edited by M.R. Dua. Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Press Council of India, New Delhi. Pages viii+144. Rs 130.

Spinning tales in the name of Sai Baba
Review by P.D. Shastri
Fragrant Spiritual Memories of a Karma Yogi. Pages 245. Rs 100.
Sai Grace and Recent Predictions. Pages 219. Rs 80.
Both edited by S.P. Ruhela. Diamond Pocket Books, New Delhi.

Malgudi, hamlet of millennium
Review by R. P. Chadha
A Town Called Malgudi — The Finest Fiction of R.K. Narayan edited by S. Krishnan. Viking — Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 642. Rs 395.

Churchill with war-time warts and all
Off the shelf
by V.N. Datta
MOSTLY historians have focused on social and economic history during the past 50 years and derided political history which was then relegated to the background. Usually it is the “people’s history”, workers’ and women’s history which has drawn their attention.

How not to analyse Kargil war
Review by Kavita Soni-Sharma
Kargil War: Past, Present and Future by Bhaskar Sarkar. Lancer Publications, Delhi. Pages 211. Rs 395.


50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence
50 years on indian independence

Press as seen from within
by Kuldip Kalia

Press as Leader of Society edited by M.R. Dua. Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Press Council of India, New Delhi. Pages viii+144. Rs 130.

The print media is a powerful instrument in a democracy. It provides a forum for exchange of ideas and opinions. Freedom of Press imposes a great deal of responsibility on journalists because it underlines the people’s right to know. However the culture of commercial ventures, by and large, threatens to erode the credibility of newspapers. Accuracy and moral and ethical values have taken a backseat. How to regain the past glory is a moot question.

The Press plays the crucial role of informing the public on all matters that affect or interest them. It is often quoted in Parliament. It can also help in promoting tolerance, brotherhood and unity.

However there is a danger of politicians becoming immune to criticism. It will not be out of place to mention that freedom of the Press is exercised for and on behalf of society. Frankly speaking, the Press has no existence outside society. Any act of misinformation, disinformation and suppression of news is a dereliction of duty. Moreover, in a “fractured society” like ours, it is very likely that the Press may be partisan.

There is also the danger of journalists becoming activists which would result in carrying the views of one party against the other; which is tamtamount to misuse of the media. New ideas may not get an airing. Moreover, this may inhibit the Press from playing a leadership role.

While performing the social responsibility, including preventing the criminalisation of society and corruption, the Press must follow a correct approach. Otherwise it would lead to sensationalising a development as it happened when an English daily said on the front page that N.K. Salve’s mother had pulled up the Director General of Doordarshan for not broadcasting her condolence message on the death of Vinoba Bhave. Actually she had died eight years earlier.

It calls for transparency and accountability of the highest order. The Press must act as the Lok Pal of society. Inaccurate reports, wrongly interpreted facts and unwillingness to correct mistakes would erode the credibility of the Press. The whole issue is centred on trust.

In fact, information is power, so exercising such power without responsibility will never be accepted by the public. M.V. Desai rightly points out that a “responsible readership can help improve matters tremendously”. Moreover one’s conscience should be the guiding principle. Internal checks and balances is an additional safeguard.

Unfortunately the Press has not given due attention to the “real” people (who live in the rural areas and primarily belong to the lower and deprived classes). It tends to support the haves and goes to the have-nots only when there is either an earthquake, flood or other major disasters. It has created an elite group which is elite by wealth and not by intellect.

The problems of women do find a place in newspapers. Ironically, vulgar aspects are highlighted in comparison to issues related to freedom, equality and liberation. Moreover, the obsession with the so-called beauty queens and the “bandit queens” does not depict the woman in high esteem. Consumerism has hurt the social fabric and contributed to the sensalisation of news to some extent.

The big Press largely reflects capitalist values. Newspaper is being sold like any other commodity. The principle of balance between news and advertisement has been forgotten in the mad money-making exercise. The “handout” culture has undermined the importance of investigative journalism.

Peeping into the privacy of individuals in the name of investigation has become the game of the day. The sole deciding criterion is what “sells” and not ethics and values. This calls for a dialogue with the proprietor of the newspaper concerned.

The Press Council has failed to curb yellow journalism and vulgarisation because it “merely barks and does not bite”. There is need for vesting it with more power. At the same time the Press must reinvent itself and re-establish its credibility. Self-regulation should be the fundamental mechanism. Besides that, the real commitment should be to the conscience.

As a leader of society, the Press must understand the present and the future. It should be capable of providing the “intellectual resources to society as a whole”, but at the same time must avoid sermonising to the societyTop


Spinning tales in the name of Sai Baba
by P.D. Shastri

Fragrant Spiritual Memories of a Karma Yogi. Pages 245. Rs 100.
Sai Grace and Recent Predictions. Pages 219. Rs 80.
Both edited by S.P. Ruhela. Diamond Pocket Books, New Delhi.

BOTH these books have a common theme: how to achieve God. Both present Shirdi Sai Baba as the chief guru.

The first publication refers to a karma yogi who is one A. Somasundaram. The title has been chosen by the editor who is a Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia and is a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba. The writer Somasundaram calls him “my spiritual son”. The book should be more appropriately described as a spiritual autobiography of an unknown Indian.

It is in the first person throughout, and the camouflage of the editor is kept to perhaps ward off objection that large parts of the book read like a self-projection or self-publicity. Mr Somasundaram is 85 years old and is an invalid; he has recorded his experiences for the benefit of those who may want to tread the spiritual path.

The prime purpose of life, according to the author, is to be united with God or attain salvation. (This objective may not have many takers today, at least not as the primary or sole purpose of life.) The title of a book by one of his followers (or comrades) is, “How I found God”.

Apart from his own experiences he writes long chapters on his spiritual mentors or leaders. One such God-realised saint is Maharshi Ram Ram. Says our author: “Rishi Ram Ram, whose real name was Nandarupa, lived 2400 years ago in Orissa, his mother and father being Gangini and Athri” (page 57).

He died in May, 1967. How come that? He went through many lives and deaths, which somehow our author knows.

About his own life, too, he says, “In the previous birth my son was my loving brother.”

Another spiritual master mentioned in the book is Minocher K. Spencer. This Spencer’s three births are mentioned: in 1213 he was born in the house of a baron and was christened Patricio. In the next birth he was born as a woman in South India. Now he is M.K. Spencer (a guru has an exalted position if he has foreigners as his disciples and if he visits foreign countries at frequent intervals). This Spencer has revealed in his book “Romance of a Soul” that while staying at our author’s spiritual centre, he authored seven other books. The pages of each are mentioned and they total up to an exact 2,000, same as the number of the coming millennium year.

Another saint highlighted in this book is Swami Amritanandaji, who was born in 366 A.D and died in 445 A.D. The present one is his latest birth.

These revelation about their previous births vests the narrative with mystique, attributing supra knowledge to our author. How much credence it carries with the readers is a different matter. Despite this supra knowledge, our author says, “I was a victim of black magic” (page 33).

The pioneer saint Rishi Ram Ram ran a spiritual healing centre at Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) which closed down when he died in 1967. Like our author, he was hailed as a benefactor of mankind.

His mantle fell on Swami Amritanandaji; his wife died and he turned a sanyasi and ran the ashram. His purpose was to spiritually awaken the mankind vigorously. “He is the spirit guide of the world.”

Everywhere, it is at the world-level. He is called “the matchless crusader for peace”. He was God’s emissary to establish peace and harmony in the world (a very ineffectual choice of God, who made absolutely no impact). It is a pity that he was not considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. He says the Gayatri Mantra is the most potent incantation to establish world peace.

Another great apostle, whose story occupies one-third of the book — 70 pages and 50 sub-chapters — is Swami Onkar with his Shanti Ashram (his name is repeated ad nauseum).

Our writer says, “Swamiji, you have written hundreds of books (really?). Tell their message in a few words.” The reply is: “Serve, lovel, give, purify, meditate.”

Other messages are: “The way to be happy is to make others happy. Be good; do good. Depend on God. Reform not the world, but yourself,” etc. etc.

Commonplace adages are presented as if they are great nuggets of wisdom and Gospel truth to save mankind.

Our writer too opened a divine centre at Marakpur (Andhra Pradesh) in 1962. Here 100 boys and girls received free boarding and lodging, apart from free education. He gave food and clothes to the needy and did so many other nameless acts of kindness, philanthropy and love.

He had many disciples, one of them was Kankadurga — “his spiritual daughter”, who had property worth Rs 7 or 8 crore. How do gurus attract the over-rich?

The first sentence in the book is: “In the Bhagwat Gita, there is a term karma bhrishta” (the correct word is bhrashta). We can’t find it in the Gita; yoga brashta is there, but that is a different matter. A few other such inaccuracies are: “One message of the Gita is, share what you have with others.” This is the message of the Sikh Gurus and not of the Gita. Yet another wayward statement is, “The Gita reveals the gradual ascending evolutionary steps towards God realisation.” We can’t find it in the Gita.

About the Niagra Falls he says (one of his purple patches): “Bathe the world in peace and joy. Drench humanity in health and glory. I give without seeking any reward and I give because I cannot keep without any motive.”

The book is packed with letters, some running to just a few lines, which some obscure devotee or another wrote to the ashram or to fellow seekers. Their number defies count.

Also the book is choked with countless details of little men and their trivial activities; there are numberless names and dates, in which no one can be interested except the writer himself.

He makes passing references to some other saints like Swami Shivananda of the Divine Life Society, the great man of God from the Himalayas, Swami Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha and other savants.

The following quotation which he lifts from Rabindranath Tagore is eye-catching: “Salvation and revelation do not come to a saint losing himself in meditation. God reveals himself to the mender of the road and the tiller of the soil. The sun and the moon are one, common to all humanity, not your sun or my moon. So there is one religion (each says ‘mine’).”


The second book “Sai Grace and Recent Predictions” carries Shirdi Sai Baba’s picture both on the cover and on the back one. The first book presents Sai Baba as the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Shirdi Sai Baba is Shiva’s avtar. The first was Shirdi Sai. He died in 1918; seven years after that, the Satya Sai Baba was born. He would live to be 96. Seven years after his death, Prema Sai will be born. These three Sais represent the three major religions of the world: the Shirdi Baba Islam, the Satya Sai Baba Hinduism and the Prema Sai Christianity or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

The Sai cult is of a global expanse; millions in India and many in foreign countries profess intense faith in Sai Baba, the human God.

This book prints 93 prophesies made in the name of Sai Grace by one dark horse — Prof Verma and edited by the same S.P. Ruhela. This Verma goes to gurdwaras, durgahs, etc. and involuntarily utters the shape of things to come. As he says, “My whole body is filled by some other astral being. My behaviour becomes unusual.” This is IT age clairvoyance.

The first prophesy is: “Afghanistan, Hindustan. Pakistan and the USA will be ruined. These four will face devastation.”

Except Afghanistan, there is no chance of utter devastation in the other countries and Afghanistan is an old story, fit for a historian and not a future-teller.

The last item (November, 1999) is: “Sharif rings Atal urging the two countries to defuse the Kashmir tension and save peace.” Future-telling should have forecast his dismissal after a military coup, his imprisonment and prosecution for grave crimes that can carry the death penalty.

A wit said: “Astrology is giving out intelligent guesses.” Forecasts do not fit the events; the credulous people fit the events to the prophesies.

No astrologer or crystal-gazer predicted that in November, 1999, there will be a super cyclone in Orissa killing over 10,000 persons. No one predicted the date and place of Indira’s and Rajiv’s murder. Yet after the event, many claimed that they had foretold it six months earlier.

Our future-tellers forfeit the future, but retrospectively forecast the past. The writer mentions “premonitions” about the fall of the V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and the Gujral governments after the events took place.

They make vague statements. Some great man will die; some calamity will befall, leaving for themselves an escape route.

Such prophesies in Sai Baba’s name do not enhance his stature or glory.

These books are lucky to attract the attention of The Tribune for a review. Perhaps the book reviews editor wanted to make an example of the trash that most present publications are.Top


Churchill with war-time warts and all
Off the shelf
by V.N. Datta

MOSTLY historians have focused on social and economic history during the past 50 years and derided political history which was then relegated to the background. Usually it is the “people’s history”, workers’ and women’s history which has drawn their attention. Those who still persist in writing political history are considered old-fashioned fogies out of tune with the advancement of knowledge.

Thus political history is at a discount, though it is often forgotten that the art of writing political history has acquired a high and sophisticated level of interpretation. Old political issues which became a subject of fierce controversy are viewed from a new perspective thereby, adding richness to the texture of historiography. Lewis Namier, Elton, A.J.P. Taylor and Trevor-Roper have enriched our understanding of the complex political issues of great importance which deeply interest us as human problems.

John Luckas’s has rich credentials as a political historian. He has already produced two authoritative studies, “The Last European War, 1939-41,” and “The Duel” dealing with the conflict between Hitler and Churchill between May 10 and July 31, 1940. In both studies based on a variety of primary sources and memoirs, political history is blended with diplomatic and military history.

Luckas has now undertaken the extraordinary task of producing an essay on “five days that could have changed the world” in his “Five Days in London (May, 1940” (Yale University Press, pages 288, $ 12.95). These five essays cover the period from February 24 to May 28, 1940, two weeks after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister.

The author’s focus is on the role of Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II on which a great volume of historical literature has appeared. After Hitler’s defeat, Churchill was acknowledged as the saviour of Europe and the western civilisation, who by his qualities of leadership and statesmanship, rescued Europe from the menace of Nazism and the horrors and brutalities it perpetrated.

During the past decade or so Churchill’s role has become a subject of serious controversy in British historiography. He is now held responsible for pushing England into the war, in liquidating the British Empire and making Britain a satellite of the USA and losing thereby its primary role as a leader of the free world.

The author makes no claims for originality and has based his work on secondary sources but his reasoning is cogent and analysis sharp. Churchill took over as Prime Minister after a military debacle in Norway for which his reckless military strategy had been previously condemned. The Germans had just invaded Holland and Belgium. The Allied forces had been defeated in France and retreated to Dunkirk from where it was not certain whether they would be saved, surrounded as they were by the German troops. The Germans were in high spirits.

Luckas writes that Hilter “represented an enormous tide in the affairs of the world”, deploying “the energy, the discipline, the confidence and the obedience of the German people whom he succeeded in uniting beyond the accomplishments of any other leader in their history”. It seems as though Hitler was emulating Napoleon who by galvanising the fervour and passion of revolutionary France built up a powerful war machine to establish mastery over Europe.

The Conservative Party distrusted Churchill’s judgement and was unwilling to elect him as leader. But Lord Halifax, whom it wanted as leader, was reluctant to take up the responsibility as he knew that he would not be equal to the onerous task. So the crown was passed on to Churchill.

With Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister, certain crucial decisions had to be taken. Halifax was convinced that war could be averted through negotiations. Therefore he urged Churchill to approach Mussolini to act as a peace-maker, who “would be anxious, if he could, to persuade Hitler to take a more reasonable attitude”. R.A. Butler too supported Halifax’s proposal. But Churchill was bitterly opposed to any such deal. Churchill thought war was necessary and inevitable.

The author makes it clear that he did not consult primary source material for his story. His earlier study too is based on secondary works, which is certainly a disadvantage. Neither Churchill nor Halifax left any notes on the period under study. Probably they had no time to indulge in such an intellectual activity. Halifax destroyed some of his papers which might have been more incriminating. Churchill skipped over the controversial accounts in his memoirs.

However, Churchill noted that “on Sunday, 26 May he had thought that it was best to decide nothing until we saw how much of the army we could re-embark from France. The operation could be a great failure.” It seems that he changed his opinion later. Initially he was indecisive on the issue of war. Possibly he was thinking over the matter.

Butler too was a staunch appeaser determined to avoid war at all cost. He had prepared a comprehensive plan which had laid down the specific steps to be taken for negotiating peace with Germany. In his works A.J. P. Taylor has applauded the peaceable intentions of these appeasers who boldly swam against the current.

Butler had sheer contempt for Churchill’s adventurist policy. He thought that Churchill’s aggressive policy would bring disaster to England. Therefore he made a clandestine attempt to arrive at a settlement with Germany in the summer of 1940. But Butler’s efforts came to naught.

Luckas gives a blow-by-blow account of the heated verbal exchanges between Churchill and Halifax at Cabinet meetings. Mostly these accounts of the verbal duels are drawn from secondary sources and we cannot vouch for their authenticity. It seems that the author has relied on the unconventional and provocative work of Andrew Robert’s “Life of Halifax”.

Halifax was opposed to Churchill’s idea of declaring war on Germany. On Monday Halifax questioned, “Our independence was at stake and why, if it was not, Churchill would not contemplate any course except fighting to a finish.” Surprisingly Churchill kept his cool and did not reveal his cards. By enlisting the support of his colleagues, Churchill succeeded in isolating Halifax and packed him off.

Then on May 28 Churchill met 25 members of his new government. At the meeting he said quite casually and not treating it as a point of special significance, “Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.” The author writes that after Churchill’s brief comments there was an immediate response from his colleagues who applauded and vowed to stand by him in the hour of trial. Some of his colleagues patted him on the back and burst into tears. The die was cast and there was no turning back!

Like Allen Bullock, Luckas has made a comparative evaluation of Churchill and Hitler as leaders. Hitler was not a “traditionalist” but the greatest revolutionary of the 20th century because he was “seen and feared as the brutal energy of social revolution”. To the author, Churchill was the defender of the finest human values of western civilisation which were threatened by Nazism.Top


How not to analyse Kargil war
by Kavita Soni-Sharma

Kargil War: Past, Present and Future by Bhaskar Sarkar. Lancer Publications, Delhi. Pages 211. Rs 395.

THE line dividing boyish exuberance and foolishness has always been rather thin, more so when boys begin to play war games, insist that big is better and that only the big wins. We saw it happen in the USA and the USSR during the cold war with each trying to outdo the other in defence spending and preparedness.

Just as monks in medieval times spent years debating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, so American and Soviet defence experts and scientists spent their time and government money (to the awe of most observers) trying to figure out the real number of weapons needed to annihilate the enemy.

It is another matter that many reasonable people kept pointing out in vain that a handful of weapons were really enough to destroy both the virtual combatants and the rest of the world as well. It was too late when Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the downfall of the Soviet Union, realised that military one-upmanship was eating into the vitals of Soviet economy without bringing in any gains in defence. While such spending was buoying the American economy (almost 50 per cent of all American production was related to the defence sector) the USSR’s defence budget was merely a drain on national resources and a major source of funds for the lavish lifestyles of the members of the nomenklatura.

Countries which have escaped military-inspired disasters of the sort that happened in the Soviet Union have devised ways of running down militaristic thinking. I am reminded of the apocryphal story that used to go around Argentina after that country’s disastrous Falkland war. I cannot vouchsafe for the story, but it was at the history department of Panjab University that I heard it, so it just might be true. Argentinian scientists had created a scale for measuring intelligence, the story went. A normal person, for example, was placed in this intelligence scale at “one tary”. Thus Einstein would be at, say, a “kilo-tary”. And then there was the “military”.

With the unfortunate Kargil war India too has reached that point where militaristic discussions have begun in right earnest within the country. Colonel (retd) Sarkar’s current book presents one side of the case. Briefly put, his argument is simple: increase defence spending, even at the cost of increased taxation and some privation.

To bolster his argument he gives a brief history of defence unpreparedness in India. His version of the history of Indian defence looks at a number of aspects of India’s military history. Among others he tells us of the tremendous effort that the country has had to expend on each occasion when there has been a threat from across the border, the costly management of the so-called Kashmir problem, the continued hostile posturings of our neighbours and the numerous ways in which the bureaucracy and political leadership have let down the military. He could have easily listed past and present military commanders in the list of those found culpable for sending our brave young soldiers to near-certain death without adequate preparation.

Sarkar’s credentials for commenting on India’s defence policy are, on the surface at least, unexceptionable. As an active soldier he has fought wars for the country and thereby demonstrated his capacity to sacrifice for the motherland. In his professional capacity he has also been involved in the making of decisions concerning military strategy. As an analyst he studies and discusses extensively matters concerning defence. But, and we say this with some diffidence, he is still innocent of the factors which guide defence policy in our country or in most independent countries where the military has not evolved as a separate caste and is subordinate to the civil government.

Some of his innocence comes through in his manner of reconstructing the history of the Kargil war. “We were taken by surprise,” and “we don’t like to invest in defence preparedness.” These are some of the statements which recur in his account of various military engagements.

At another point he identifies the objectives of Pakistan in Kashmir. One such is to launch a “jehad” to “educate” Kashmiri Muslims in the Islamic way of life. He further claims that the Pakistan army is trying to capture Ladakh or Kashmir and thus redeem the honour it lost in Bangladesh.

In themselves these statements are widely held within our country and are perhaps true. They seem more attractive, however, for their quality to absolve people with such view- points from the rather arduous task of thinking deeply about matters concerning the military defence of our nation.

Take the rather attractive notion that the nation was taken by surprise this year when Pakistan attacked India. Information about infiltration from across the border was easily available to those who are supposed to be privy to such information and decide defence policy. Yet they failed to act upon it. The surprise was not that Pakistan attacked, but that our military and political leadership failed to read the signals correctly. Perhaps the failure was not avoidable, only a detailed enquiry would tell.

Moreover, Pakistan has never made any bones about creating trouble for India. To presume that it would desist only suggests a kind of goodness which characterises small boys who hope to make friends with the neighbourhood bully. Terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir as also information about Pakistani encouragement to various terrorist acts in other parts of the country is common knowledge. Yet the leadership failed to act on it.

Now we have information that the commanders in Kargil asked for specialised weapons for checking infiltrators since field level judgement was that the infiltrations were serious this time. Yet the higher-ups failed to act on the requests even when the weapons were available. All that the military higher-ups did was to give bureaucratic answers to those in the field without sending in the new weapons. And they still criticise the bureaucracy!

The list of such failures can be expanded considerably. The point is, when there is such consistent failure one needs to look more deeply into the underlying causes. Was this really failure as is made out by popular opinion or was/is there some design to it? But Sarkar refuses to think deeply. Therefore in the end he merely manages to make a plea for greater defence spending and indulge himself in some hack philosophy.

At one point he even goes to say that it does not pay to be generous to one’s enemy. When the enemy is down, knock him out. What do you do after the enemy has been KOed? Push him in the Arabian Sea? And what about the few million people who will rise in support of their KOed leaders?

Do we include them in Hindustan? Or do we do with them what Hitler tried to do with the Jews with wile results for himself and his nation?

A competent military mind such as Colonel Sarkar is, he refuses to concern himself with such “civil” matters. But without thinking in the round, as it were, we may only pave the way for further disasters rather than prevent them.

I just hope that the militaristic recommendations that are made in this book are not taken seriously by anyone who matters. Top


Malgudi, hamlet of millennium
by R. P. Chadha

A Town Called Malgudi — The Finest Fiction of R.K. Narayan edited by S. Krishnan. Viking — Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 642. Rs 395.

R K NARAYAN, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, who are now into their nineties, embarked on the Indian English fiction scene in the 30s of this century. Till today, they are actively engaged in contributing to the body of Indian writing in English.

While, Anand sticks to social realism and his best novels are a deliberate attempt to expose the distress of the lower castes and classes of India, Raja Rao constantly discusses the nationalist struggle and its revolutionary implications in terms of Hindu mythology, religion and culture.

Narayan and Anand, are two writers who could not differ more. Where Anand is an angry protester, Narayan is essentially a humorous writer, interested in the lower middle classes of South India, in a world relatively free from the terrible privations and agonies, political conflicts and economic oppressions, et al.

Over the years, Narayan, through his fiction, has conveyed the unique flavour of life in small towns (through the creation of Malgudi) where everything seems strangely coloured by superstition and tradition. Narayan creates an effect with his middling range of vocabulary, his phrases rarely glint with compression or suggested meaning. They are just their own declared selves with their bright exact meaning.

Four dominant symbols provide the parameters to his fiction — the temple, the village, the town Malgudi and the river Sarayu. In his fiction, he has invested these symbols with a deep mystery that influences the individual conscience as it flows into the universal. He develops Malgudi as the symbol of the whole of India and the river Sarayu becomes a witness to the history being enacted in the town of Malgudi. Malgudi is peopled with men and women who believe in the doctrine of karma, rebirth and rich mythical past.

The imaginative re-creation of mythological incidents and situations is discernible in almost all of Narayan’s novels. The main characters are modern in the sense that they do not lay any claim to “heroism”, nor do they control events — rather they are controlled by them.

The collection under review is edited by S. Krishnan, a teacher of English literature, editor, a free-lance writer and, of course, a Narayan aficionado. The finest fiction of Narayan has two novels “The Man-Eater of Malgudi”, “Talkative Man” and a host of 16 old and new, ever popular stories of Narayan. In the Introduction, Krishnan reveals a rare understanding of Narayan’s fiction and divulges a few not-so-well-known facts. “Almost all of his fiction is based on a person or an incident with which he was familiar.”

It took Narayan quite sometime to come out of the tales of “Swami and Friends” to write complete novels and that is why his characters move in and out of the stories to grace the pages of a novel or vice versa. For instance, Gafur’s taxi in a story “Selvi” is carried over to the pages of his tour-de-force novel “The Guide”. The fictional Sir Frederick Lawley finds a reference in a number of stories.

The other landmarks of Malgudi have names which reflect the secular credentials of the author — Albert Mission School, Vinayak Street, Lawley Road, Kabir Street, etc.

“The Man-Eater of Malgudi” (1962) includes such fads that are important for modernising Malgudi, the incursion of intruders from outside, and eccentric lotus-eaters of the town. The story tells of Vasu, an ex-circus strongman, jailbird, wild animal hunter and taxidermist, who descends on Malgudi and begins a one-man war with wild life.

Vasu forces himself as a tenant above the scarcely used printing shop of one Nataraj, a dreamer, bullied by his wife.

Much of the humour comes from the love-hate relationship of Vasu and Nataraj which develops to the chagrin of the whole community. But the story is also a parody of the Agatha Christie-type of mystery. When the giant is found bashed to death the police suspects Nataraj to be the murderer. Order is restored when a prostitute reveals that Vasu has killed himself swatting a mosquito on his skull.

In a way, Narayan parodies the self-immolation of the legendary monster, Basmasura. The irony of the title, which suggests a hunting tale and presents a moral fable, is all too apparent. Prior to “The Guide” this is Narayan’s best crafted story, in which humour, pathos and mystery mingle in equal measure.

Narayan’s reading of British magazines of the late 20s gave him the idea of using the literary device of a narrator. The result was “Talkative Man” who tells, in first person, several early stories that Narayan wrote, which usually deal with some minor catastrophe that occurred to him. The novella is the first full-length story in which the character appears. “Talkative Man” is really an extended short story but is as full of Malgudi as any of Narayan’s longer novels.

The book was lapped up by a London magazine as it conveys a narrative skill that spells pace and distance to perfection.

Narayan’s earlier writings were short stories which he contributed to “The Hindu”. Out of his hundred-odd stories, the present editor has chosen 16 and most of these have found their way into text books for undergraduates. “An Astrologer’s Day” is an all-time favourite of editors. The story has a “sting in the tail” and it has an incredible twist. There are old and new town (extensions) everywhere, in Malgudi too, there are extensions — Lawley extension but later renamed as Gandhi Nagar. This craze for changing names is lightly glanced at in the story “Lawley Road”. All this was bound to happen in the aftermath of independence in the late forties and Narayan takes note of it.

In “A Horse and Two Goats”, the American who gives money to Muni and carries in his wagon the terracota figure of a horse which is not for Muni to sell, while he (Muni) imagines that the payment is for his two starved goats. It is a typical example of the Narayan brand of humour and irony. Did the American really believe that Muni was the owner of the wayside statue or was he determined to collect a souvenir and clear his conscience by paying the money to the wayside peasant?

“Annamalai” is the story of an entirely trustworthy mali who does know much about gardening but is fiercely honest. Narayan may not know exactly how the poor live in their homes, but the domestics and the like are a different category and these he portrays convincingly.

“Salt and Sawdust” is about a wife who cannot distinguish between salt and sawdust and so forces her husband to do the kitchen chores. Her strong desire to become a writer brings in the local publishers who push her to write a book on cooking because of her critical eye for detailing the nuances of cooking in building up the story of the novel. She becomes a writer of sorts and sends out recipes for delicious dishes ably helped by her husband. That is why it is said in an American university, Narayan’s fiction is being used as sociological data rather than as artistic material for critical assessment.

Over the years, Narayan has become a favourite author for researchers who go on dissecting his novels to find various aspects of Indian ethos for their doctoral theses. One cannot but agree with critic M.K. Naik (“A History of Indian English Literature”) when he says, “Narayan’s fiction consistently creates a credible universe observed with an unerring but uniformly tolerant sense of human incongruity.... He is able to hitch the wagon of his ironic action to the star of moral imagination.”Top

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