- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 2 edition (October 15, 1981)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226568288
- ISBN-13: 978-0226568287
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,599,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Sriram is an orphan who has lived with his Granny since childhood. His father was killed fighting for the British in Mesopotamia, and the grandmother has received a monthly military pension for the boy ever since. She saved every penny in an account set up for Sriram, and now that he is twenty years-old, she signs the account over to him. Feeling wealthy and quite independent, he strolls around town until he is stopped by a beautiful girl, asking for a contribution. She is collecting money for Mahatma Gandhi's work. And Mahatmaji is coming to visit the people of Malgudi.
Sriram is not particularly knowledgeable about Gandhi, nor has he thought much about Indian independence, the elimination of the caste system, and nonviolent civil disobedience. He is totally focused on the girl collecting coins for a cause. He wants to know her name, her age, her caste, her horoscope and whether she is free to marry him. He is love struck from the first glance. Later, Sriram wades into a great gathering of people, all awaiting the arrival of "the great soul," to look for the lovely young woman in the crowd. The throng suddenly cries out in one great voice, "Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai!" He has arrived. The great man begins to clap his hands rhythmically and loudly and asks the crowd to do the same, with vigor and spirit. "No good. Not enough. I like to see more vigor in your arms, more rhythm, more spirit. It must be like the drum beats of the non-violent soldiers marching to cut the chains that bind Mother India."
Sriram eventually finds Bharati, the girl of his dreams, in Gandi's entourage. He asks to volunteer, to work for the cause, and charms Bharati by his obvious romantic intentions. She, however, has more serious matters on her mind. She brings Sriram to meet Gandhi, after he promises to tell the truth in all things. He suddenly blurts out that he wants to work and live in the ashram so he can be close to Bharati. Gandhi responds that Bharati must be pleased to have such a fine friend. He will permit Sriram to travel with him and his followers for a few weeks if Granny permits. When the Mahatma finally leaves the area, Sriram becomes Bharati's disciple, and she his Guru, with the great man's blessing. His parting words to the boy are, "Spin and read Bhagavad Gita, and utter Ram Nam continuously, and then you will know what to do in life." He promises to write to both of them, and he does.
As the struggle becomes more intense, Gandhi is jailed and many of his followers choose to protest by going to prison also. Such a one is Bharati. Sriram is left on his own to do the best he can and remain faithful to the ideals he has dedicated himself to. Although his version of nonviolent resistance is quite different from Gandhi's and Bharati's.
Although I found fascinating, and terribly moving, all the narrative that has to do with Mahatma Gandhi, this is, in fact, a story of the common man. Most of the novel's characters are touched only slightly by the political events taking place in their nation. Their primary concerns are much more basic - food, shelter, clothing, health, etc.. The problems of the larger world may intrude occasionally, but not for long. The author perfectly portrays the small village and its peoples concerns, trials and tribulations, and juxtaposes them against Mahatma Gandhi's take on the big picture and love for his people. This is a wonderful novel which I highly recommend.
Elsewhere in the world, World War II has started. In India Mahatma Ghandi campaigns throughout the land, urging the people to peacefully oust the British. Ghandi is coming to Malgudi. An advance party precedes him and Sriram falls in love with a girl, Bharati, collecting money for Ghandi's movement. To the dismay of his grandmother he joins the cause to follow Bharati.
Oddly enough, he is quite sincere about following Ghandi and gives up his meaningless idle life to devote himself to the Mahatma's peaceful uprising. Like Ghandi and his disciples, Sriram learns to spin cotton, he has a garment made from his yarn, he burns his factory made clothes and tours the region painting slogans telling the British to leave. He and Bharati are separated for a time. Bharati won't marry Sriram unless the Mahatma blesses the union.
There are moments of high comedy. When the richest man in Malgudi invites Ghandi to stay in his home, Ghandi invites a poor young boy to follow him in and then proceeds to move into the boy's shanty town rather than stay in the rich man's palace. Later in the novel, Sriram throws himself to the ground to block the entrance to a shop selling "the finest English biscuits". We meet criminals in prison, a bombastic photographer, and even sycophantic prison guards.
But Sriram's tale is serious and the novel ends tragically, yet leaving us with hope. It is as much about India's clumsy rise to independence as it is about an awkward young man reaching maturity. As an innocent India is led forward by the wise Mahatma, an immature Sriram is led by a wordly Bharati. Narayan paints an intimate portrait of India rather than an epic canvas.
Despite being a spoiled and lazy man, Sriram proves himself surprisingly principled. He is weak, but taps into Bharati's strength at need. He is jealous and insecure but easily reassured. He does not bear his burden heroically but he accepts his lot willingly. If we cannot be saints, Sriram's experience convinces us we can, and should, be good.
Vincent Poirier, Tokyo