The Bachelor of Arts

Dialogues

The 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 created.

 

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  Dialogues

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 and boredom.


"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.

  Notes

Narayan's Romeos

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.

Marriage Customs

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.


  Links

1. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14016
Contains a very insightful article on Narayan and his novels.

2. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/painterofsigns.html

3. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/maneaterofmalgudi.html


 

  Teaching

1. How important is the title "The Bachelor of Arts" to the theme of the novel?

2. What are the marriage customs of the day that is discussed in the novel? How do you think will the modern reader react to the dowry, a girl's marriageable age and matching horoscopes?

3. Trace the events that lead to Chandran becoming a sanyasi.

4. What is the importance of Kailas to the novel?

5. Discuss the background of colonial India, and how aware the characters are about their subjugation.

  Citations

Narayan, R.K. The Bachelor of Arts. East Lansing: The Michigan State College Press, 1954

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14016 : The New York Review of Books: The Great Narayan

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