A Breath of Lucifer by R.K. Narayan

For man, eyes are God’s greatest gift, as they help us in seeing, believing and grasping the beauty and charm of nature, and the evil intentions or noble causes of men in general. If something goes wrong with this most prestigious present, then the strongest of us would find it hard to deal with.

But, R.K. Narayan belongs to an altogether different category. He has used the most sensitive and troubled time of his life in christening an entertaining story.

an-astrolgers-day-r-k-narayan The present story, ‘A Breath of Lucifer’ is supposedly written in March 1969, as signed by the author in the prologue and tells the story of a time when Narayan underwent an eye surgery to get rid of ‘Lentil Opacity’ that threatened to blind him.

As Narayan recuperates after the operation, he gets the opportunity to meet Sam, a dedicated male nurse and the protagonist of ‘A breath of Lucifer’. Sam helps Narayan in his daily chores, remains with him like a shadow for a full week after the surgery, nursing him like a dear friend.

Sam’s selfless service elevates him to the level of a confidant, as the author was blindfolded by a green bandage, and is oblivious to his surroundings, Sam becomes his only access to the outside world, a single window in the high walls of hospital prison.

For six days, Sam serves him diligently, attentively attending to his minutest need and becomes the eyes of Narayan. But, is the man, Narayan trusts so blindly, really worth the faith? Who exactly is Sam? What is his background? Will it make a difference to know his life story?

Riddled with such questions, it is on the seventh day of recovery that Narayan discovers Sam’s secret affectations in a rather startled way.

Sam tells him about his past, when he worked under a English Colonel and was trained as a Nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers. Presumably, Colonel was a strict disciplinarian and he inculcated moral values in Sam as well. However, how much of this moral education seeped into Sam’s character is revealed to Narayan in a rather squeaky manner.

Sam told him that once he performed the role of Lucifer on stage. His evil act complete with forked tail enamored the viewers and Sam simply loved the way Lucifer could poison the minds of men and women, with his fire breath. However, Narayan could hardly imagine that Lucifer’s breath has become a part of Sam’s persona. In the darkness of night, the devilry overrides the goodness in the humble nurse, and transforms him into someone else. What is Lucifer capable of doing, forms the basic premise of this unique story.

I have talked a lot about the capability of Narayan as a writer in my previous reviews. And, I think, by the time, I read the present story, I had begun to take the easy narrative engulfing me in its charmed snare as a given fact, so in this review, I am only going to concentrate on what I really found unusual, instead of lining up the praise again.

First of all, it is the finest specimen of autobiography, I have encountered so far. It is easy to write about fictional characters facing an equally fanciful event, but to narrate your real life incidents, needs a bold heart. Here, Narayan has given a sneak peek into one of the most vulnerable period of his life, a time when he truly believed he was going blind. One could only imagine, how hard it must have been for a man for whom, reading and writing were the only solace in life, to discover his most important tool i.e. eyes getting blunt. An ordinary mortal would have lost heart at such a juncture.

But, Narayan is nothing if not boldly funny. His opening lines in the Prologue, where he makes fun of his weakening eyesight are something to be admired for. As he simply talks about the passage of a dim blotch floating over his spectacles and his lame efforts to brush it off as a speck of dust, I found myself laughing, and yet feeling a surge of sympathy rising in my heart for poor Narayan. Often, a person takes time to accept the fact that he is going blind or bald, despite numerous visual evidences, and Narayan’s statement smacks of this realism.

Further, I think this is the only story where a certain time frame has been specified by Narayan. More than anything, it added a lot of authenticity to the story. Most of Narayan’s works, be it Bachelor of Arts, English Teacher or Guide, are inspired by real life events. However, in ‘A Breath of Lucifer’, he has gone one step ahead, and fixed a specific period, when the story was created.

Again, prologues for lengthy novels are quite common place, however, this is the first time that I found a dedicated prologue for a short story. Again, it was a smart move, as it gives a definition to the back stage drama that was the inspiration behind the story.

All in all, A Breath of Lucifer skilfully captures the journey of Narayan from the throes of darkness to the mysterious dungeons of garden and makes for a comical story!

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