Bachelor of Arts is the second in the trilogy that began with Swami and
Friends. It is the story of Swami - now named Chandran attending college
and finding a place in the world. The novel traces Chandran's college
days, his unfortunate love story, his sanyasi life (ascetic life) and
his finding a way to earn a living.
About the Author
R K Narayan wrote this novel in 1937. The novel like The English Teacher
has much autobiographical information. Like Chandran, Narayan was a history
student and his college days flew easily and without incident, till he
fell in love with Malathi. As in all of his other novels, this too is
taking place in Malgudi - a fictional town in South India, that Narayan
The novel unfolds
with a decidedly comic episode. Chandran, a history major is asked by
one of his fellow students to take part in a debate. He was to be the
Prime Mover in the debate "Historians should be slaughtered first."
After much persuasion Chandran agrees to slaughter his own kind - the
historians, and does indeed win the debate.
This lighthearted life of Chandran is very much like Swami's first days
at school before Rajam, and Krishna's life before the death of his wife.
But soon he has to start preparing for his final examination and the real
world thereafter. This is not a prospect he is looking forward to. At
this point in the novel Chandran is very much undecided about what to
do with his life, and is in fact a drifter without any concrete aim or
hope. At the same time he is anxious about leaving the security of student
life. After becoming a graduate, he falls into a pattern of utter weariness
"It is love - a girl sighted on the banks of the local river- that
brings relief from the utter dreariness of his preparations for adult
life." This was a chapter straight out of Narayan's life. "One
evening he came to the river, and was loafing along it, when he saw a
girl about fifteen years old, playing with her younger sister on the sands."
This was Rajam, Narayan's wife, whom he met in this same fashion and "thought
that he would not have room for anything else in his mind. No one can
explain the attraction between two human beings. It happens." Chandran
daydreamed about the girl - whom he later learned was Malathi - and goes
so far as to approach his parents about the choice of his wife - a practice
unheard of India at the time. (Which incidentally, Narayan actually did)
But the Horoscope got in the way and Chandran could not marry Malathi.
In a moment of desperation, misery and anger at his parents and the system,
he decides to renounce everything and become a sanyasi and spend an ascetic
life. "He was different from the usual sanyasi. Others may renounce
with a spiritual motive or purpose. Renunciation maybe to them a means
to attain peace or may be peace itself. But Chandran's renunciation was
not of that kind. It was an alternative to suicide. Suicide he would have
committed but for its social stigma. Perhaps he lacked the barest physical
courage that was necessary for it. He was a sanyasi because it pleased
him to mortify his flesh. His renunciation was a revenge on society, circumstances
and perhaps too destiny." But, he soon realizes that living on other's
charity was a fraud. He feels ashamed of himself and decides to come home
again and assume the responsibilities of the adult world. He also comes
to an important conclusion, "There was no such thing (called love):
It was a scorching madness. There was no such thing." After which,
"he settled down to a life of quiet and sobriety." He becomes
a newsagent and pursues earning a living with this faithfully and makes
up his mind to marry a girl with a dowry, with his parents' blessings.
Chandran is one of the first in Narayan's long gallery of young restless
drifters who, hungry for adventure, very quickly reach the limits of their
world, and then have to find ways of reconciling themselves with it. The
reconciliation itself can never be complete. The reader can see again
and again, in Narayan's novels how the encounter with the half-baked modernity
of colonialism has deracinated Indians like Chandran, has turned them
into what Narayan, in an unusually passionate moment in The English Teacher,
describes as "strangers to our own culture and camp followers of
another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage."
Chandran, like many of Narayan's protagonists comes back to his Indian
roots, after endeavoring to find a place in the colonial society, lured
by the lucrative benefits and material wealth. This ambivalence, and crisis
between the two opposing ends is a constant battle against which all his
protagonists wage war: Swami, Chandran, Krishna, Mali (The Vendor of Sweets),
Raman (Painter of Signs) and a host of others. It was his belief that
Indian culture, and most importantly Hindu culture and heritage that could
bring stability and harmony to an otherwise beleaguered society. This,
then is the theme of the novel. Stated in the simplest of words, The Bachelor
of Arts is the story about a young man in the threshold of adulthood,
falling and failing in love - his first real ordeal in life, renouncing
family and society; but realizing that to reconcile both life and personal
happiness, fortitude and maturity is needed.
One would ask, why are Narayan's men so blinded by love, that they will
do almost anything to receive the love of their beloved? In a culture
where custom and ritual are respected and observed by everyone it is unacceptable
as yet to pursue a woman of choice or personal happiness at all. Saving
face, bowing down to elders and tradition is what nourished and sustained
society. Hence the first encounter with women, if elders and society do
not approve it is necessarily traumatic and in most cases embarrassing
to the men involved. "
Where the pursuit of individual happiness
is not yet a culturally respectable endeavor, marriage still offers the
most bracing kinds of personal fulfillment to many men. It makes possible
their first encounter with women outside their families
Among Narayan's lovesick heroes are Chandran, Sriram in Waiting for the
Mahatma, Srinivas in Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi and Raman in The
Painter of Signs.
To most readers, and especially to the Western reader, the marriage customs
described in the novel are objectionable and difficult to accept. However
Narayan portrays a truthful picture of the conventions of marriage followed
at the time.
First, a girl should be of appropriate age. What that means is she should
be younger than fifteen years of age. "If she was more than fourteen
she must be married." "Sixteen!" mother screamed. They
can't be all right if they have kept the girl unmarried till sixteen.
She must have attained puberty ages ago. We have a face to keep in this
town." Secondly, both the bride and the groom should belong to the
same caste, community etc. Marrying out of caste is as good as social
suicide. "Suppose she belonged to some other caste? A marriage would
not even be tolerated even between sub sects of the same caste. If India
was to attain salvation these watertight divisions must go- Community,
Caste, Sects, Sub sects, and still further divisions." "His
father would certainly cast him off if he tried to marry out of caste."
Thirdly, the proposal should always come from the bride's parents. "Whatever
happened they (Chandran's parents) would not take the initiative in the
matter; for they belonged to the bridegroom's side, and according to time-honoured
practice it was the bride's people who proposed first. Anything done to
the contrary to this would make them the laughing stock of the community.
Then came the dowry arrangements - "I think they are prepared to
give a cash dowry of about two thousand rupees, silver vessels and presents
up to a thousand, and spend about a thousand on the wedding celebrations.
These will be in addition to about a thousand worth of diamond and gold
on the girl." And despite this Chandran's mother was "slightly
disappointed at the figures." Lastly, the horoscopes should match
perfectly. "How are we to know whether two persons brought together
will have health, happiness, harmony and long life, if we do not study
their horoscopes individually and together?" It goes without saying
that the most important persons of the marriage, the bride and the groom,
have no say in the matter whatsoever.