Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) is perhaps the most controversial novel of R. K. Narayan. Apart from its artistic merits and demerits (which are considerable), many Indian readers of the novel have felt dissatisfied with it and found it difficult to warm up to it particularly because of the way the Mahatma is portrayed in it. Non-Indian readers however have more or less favourably reacted to it, while being alive to its artistic lapses. An extreme instance is H. M. Williams who regards it as one of the two “most mature novels” of Narayan (Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English. Vol. I, Writers Workshop, Calcutta. p. 86). On page 123 of his My Dateless Diary Narayan has recorded that a young American novelist, to whom he had given this novel to read, remarked that “we don’t learn anything about Mahatma Gandhi from it,” a view many Indian readers would perhaps readily endorse. For us Indians the mere mention of Gandhi’s name conjures up the vision of a “man of God” who “trod on earth”, as Nehru described him in one of his speeches after Gandhi’s death. He was acclaimed a Mahatma and worshipped as an Avatar. Exasperated by Narayan’s handling of Gandhi in WFM my teacher Prof. C. D. Narasimhaiah had even suggested that Narayan would have done well to withdraw it from circulation (The Swan and the Eagle. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla. 1969. p. 155).
There is no gainsaying at all that WFM, for all its readability, is indeed unsatisfactory and disappointing as a novel. But if we could see it for what it really is in itself, we would be able to arrive at a fair assessment of it as well as Narayan’s handling of the Gandhian motif in it. The first thing to note about WFM is that it is not a “Gandhi-Novel” as one is very likely to assume it to be. Uma Parameswaran, for instance, has asserted: “It is aGandhian novel...and the theme is Gandhism.” (A Study of Representative Indo-English Novelists. Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. 1976. p. 65) But Narayan has not written one such, although once again he uses with considerable subtlety the Gandhian motif in his later novel The Vendor of Sweets (1967). Nor is WFM a “political novel”, properly so called. Some of the strongest strictures against it have sprung from these assumptions. But the readers are not wholly to blame. For the title of the novel rouses several expectations, especially regarding the Mahatma, which unfortunately are belied. Had Narayan chosen a different and less assuming title without the Mahatma in it, the readers’ response would have been less unfavourable, if only because many of the expectations roused by the present title and disappointed by the novel would not have been there at all. WFM cannot be called a political novel, though several political happenings between the First World War and Gandhi’s assassination are referred to in the course of the novel. As is his wont, Narayan aims at telling a straightforward story of some people belonging to Malgudi, the town of his mythical imagination.
Briefly, WFM tells the story of two young people of Malgudi, Sriram and Bharathi. Sriram is an orphaned young man brought up without a care by his pampering grand-mother, who makes over to him on his twentieth birthday a considerable fortune. He is shaken out of his life of complacency and stagnation when he gets to know Bharathi, a Gandhian volunteer. She too is an orphaned child. Her father had been shot dead white offering satyagraha against the British during the Non-Co-operation movement of 1920. She, who was just an infant then, was adopted and brought up by the Sevak Sangh, a Gandhian institution, as a foster-daughter to Gandhi. Sriram and Bharathi happen to fall in love with each other. It is they who wait for the Mahatma at the Birla Mandir in New Delhi to obtain his final consent for their marriage. Thus WFM is actually the love story ofSriram and Bharathi told against the background of the Gandhian decades of India’s struggle for freedom. It...
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