Naga by R.K. Narayan is a short story about relationship between man and animal, who are mutually dependent on each other for food and affection, though they are neither a part of the natural food chain, nor the residents of same territory, yet they establish a bond which proves to be even stronger than blood ties.
Narayan’s stories normally revolve around the human world, with their sorrows and joys providing the basic framework. But, in Naga, Narayan has tried to expand his horizon. Except Naga, I think, animals feature only in Man Eater of Malgudi, though they were mostly stuffed animals. But, here, he gives a sneak peek into the lives of snake charmers, inevitably drawing animals in the narrative.
Naga is the story of a young boy who lives in Malgudi with his father, a snake charmer. The father-son duo is quite poor and are totally dependent on the snake ‘Naga’ for their livelihood.
One day, the young boy sights a baby monkey and requests his father to catch it for him. The boy and monkey play with each other, and the monkey is soon trained to perform entertaining acts. Thereon, the monkey also becomes a part of the family, participating in the family business and earning its food. The animals and their masters establish a strong relationship. But, one day the man simply disappears, leaving behind his young boy to fend for himself.
What happened to the father? Will the boy ever be able to forgive him? And, how would he live his life, endless questions riddled me as I read the short story.
But, what really amazed me was the perfect irony, Narayan chose to indulge in. As soon as the father captures the monkey, he insists on naming it. Even, the snake has a name, though, it is species related, but still he is affectionately addressed as Naga. But, the boy is not named till the very end.
Moreover, though the snake charmer makes a great show of caring a lot about his naga, but in reality, he subjects both his animals to unspeakable torture, all in the name of entertainment. Thankfully, the evil practice of animal shows, that used to be a part of street tamashas, are now over. But, as the story progressed, I found that not only the animals, but the young boy is also just another prop for his father to exhibit to the public and earn money. A trend that continues to modern day, and one can easily spot young boys and girls performing risky tasks on street corners and traffic signals, a la Rohinton’s A Fine Balance.
My hitch about the selfishness of the father was proved right, as one day he simply abandons the sleeping boy for a woman. The boy is mercilessly left alone by the father, but the boy could not impose a similar fate upon the snake, and saves it from dying. Even Naga is not ready to abandon its basket and go away. Here, I found another interesting juxtaposition between the loyalty of men and animals, where the latter won hands down.
While reading the story, I had a sense of Deju vu, as if I had already seen or heard the story. Perhaps, it was a part of Malgudi Days, featured on Doordarshan years ago, or may be it is just another Narayan creation, that bewitches the reader with a familiar charm! A readable short story with a difference!