The Bachelor of Arts by R.K. Narayan

They say “Fact is stranger than fiction”.

But, I believe, even stranger are those God-gifted authors, who can effortlessly erase the fine line between the fact and the fiction, amalgamate the best elements of both the worlds and can create a unique experience for the readers!

And, I seriously believe, that R.K Narayan and Leo Tolstoy are the torch bearers of this exotic breed. One is the master chronicler of Historical Fiction, and, the other is the undisputed monarch of the Fictional Realism.

In his novels, R.K. Narayan has portrayed the fictional city of Malgudi so convincingly, that it becomes hard to accept that it is not a real place, but just an imaginary playground for the unbridled creativity of the genius Narayan. I think, he is one of those few Indian authors, who could create a fictional world and yet make it so real that the reader would be able to identify himself with it. Whether it is Swami and Friends or Vendor of Sweets, Narayan tells the story in the most natural manner, and establishes an instant rapport with the reader. His earlier two novels had mesmerized me enough to propel me towards the third.

The “Bachelor of Arts” is considered as the second in trilogy of three novels, ‘Swami and Friends’, ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ and ‘The English Teacher’. It is often said that these novels are semi autobiographical in nature. In fact, ‘Swami’ presents the childhood, ‘Chandran’ the adolescence, and ‘Krishna’ the old age of the author himself.

Though, going by whatever I have read till date, I would like to consider ‘The Vendor of Sweets’ as the third novel of the trilogy of childhood, youth and old age that Narayan endeavored to create. As for me, ‘Jagan’ the old man, was the quintessential hero, who as is usual for Narayan’s novels, learns his lessons the hard way, and tries to change himself with the changing times as Swami and Chandran did.

Well, whether autobiographical or not, ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ is definitely yet another master piece by the deft creator. It is the story of Chandran, a student of history, in Malgudi. Chandran considers himself a true historian, and thinks that he is studying history for the love of it. However, in the very beginning of the novel, the readers notice the satirical irony of fate, when Chandran is forced to debate against the historians. And he debates so convincingly that he wins the competition, shaking his own beliefs in the purity and sanctity of the subject.

The innocuous beginning is just the tip of the iceberg. Very soon it becomes apparent that Chandran’s entire belief system is based on his own whims and fancies. He can dwindle his beliefs, his interests, his love according to his own convenience. In his typical tongue-in-cheek style, Narayan has shown his hero to be a day dreamer, a little unsure of his own capabilities, in short, a good for nothing fellow with a high opinion of himself.

Immediately, after graduation, Chandran falls in love with Malathi, a fifteen year old, whom he had seen once playing on the beach, with her younger sister. This one meeting is enough to make a love struck youth out of our hero, without even bothering to know the feelings of his lady love. He is so sure of this alliance, that he forces his parents to talk to Malathi’s parents, to bring about their wedding.

And, here begins the real fun, Chandran’s mother is a firm believer in the esoteric powers of jyotish and their age old customs and would not take a single step out of their tradition. And, it simply means that Chandran’s parents can not initiate the talks, as they belong to the superior groom party. To keep their status higher, a much round about approach is made to the bride’s parents, utilizing all the tools that a highly rigid South Indian traditional system could provide.

Thus, a lot of time is wasted before the hero can be sure of his wedding. Narayan utilizes this delay in describing the eccentricities of Chandran, his love pangs and his desperate attempts to woo his beloved, but is ultimately rejected by Malathi’s parents, as he is a Manglik and a sure shot death for their daughter may follow, if the alliance is made.

Chandran’s budding love is smothered in the clutches of tradition and superstitions and he is left dejected with the whole idea of life and love. Since he is not a very strong man, he opts for renunciation instead of suicide and leaves his home for good. He becomes a sanyasi and roams around till one day he realizes that he is eking out a deplorable life on charity of others and returns home to begin his life afresh.

In the climax, he gets ready to marry a girl of his mother’s choice, with the only condition that the girl should be beautiful! So much for the great love he had for Malathi, that fizzles out at the first opportunity of a worthy substitute!

Narayan brings forth the high headedness and the empty boastful nature of his hero, in a satirical manner. He describes the pining of Chandran as a dejected lover, in the most sympathetic manner and yet he exposes his character in such a way that the reader almost from the beginning knows that Chandran is not in true love. He is just a victim of a passing infatuation and would soon get bored of his self imposed sanyas. The brilliant author utilizes the weak character of Chandran to showcase the attitude of the youth of his times and simultaneously exposes the jarring customs and traditions of the non independent India.

The idea of a loser, trying to hide his weakness behind the sham of saintliness, is one of the most important event of this novel. And, I think, Narayan must have got the idea of his famous novel ‘The Guide’ from this renunciation episode of Chandran. It always excites me when I discover the seeds of an author’s future works in his previous novels. A case in point is Chitra Bannerjee’s essay on ‘Draupadi’ in Vine of Desire, which was later developed as a whole novel of Palace of Illusions. This discovery makes me relate to the author’s thinking process, brings me somewhat closer to him, allow me to witness his growth as a writer and draw inspiration from his creativity.

Well, all said and done, I seriously believe that ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ is a worthy classic. It is a great realistic novel, with just the right mix of the stubbornness of youth and the eclectic tinge of one sided love.

A good read, indeed!


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