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Around a century ago a leader was emerging who would change the course of a country's struggle for independence. He scripted an incredible chapter in history which showed people belonging to different class, caste, language and religion becoming united to gain their freedom. He stripped them of their cultural baggage which formed their identities and divided them from each other and taught them to see each other only as humans. It was a strange war where non-violence and love for enemy was perquisite. Before taking on external enemy he wanted people to eliminate their inner evils. He stormed bastion of untouchability which had colonized a section of society for centuries. People across the country were following his directions as if enchanted by him. Entire social order was undergoing a churning process.
Kanthapura is a fictional village lying in remotest part of country unaware of burning issues which were spreading to distant parts. Rao captures Kanthapura when it is about to be drawn into freedom struggle. Although presence of colonial expedition can be seen, as Achaka mentions about exports, she doesn't seem to be aware of its implications. It is an archetypal Indian village which is lost in web of age old traditions, conventions and orthodoxies. They worship nature and natural forces and any event is seen as manifestation of will of village deity Kenchamma. They have simple cause to effect understanding supported by superstitions.
Rao remarks in his preface that there is no Indian village that doesn't have sthala purana or legendary history of its own. Rao respects that living tradition and presents it as reality of Indian villages. As the novel progresses we find Gandhi entering the mythical framework and according to prof. K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar it is "Gandhi purana."(Indian Writing in English, Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 1973,p 391) Gandhi is represented as an incarnation whose purpose is to liberate India from clutches of slavery. P. Dayal in his book Raja Rao- A study of his novels, observes "the novelist elevates the gandhian movement to a mythological plane."(pg 10 Atlantic publishers and distributors) Later he says "raja rao's faith in gandhian thought leads him to idealize mahatma gandhi as a veritable god." (pg11 ibid.)
In early parts of novel we find Gandhi's tale interspersed with harikatha. Jayramchar equates swaraj with Siva. "Siva is three eyed and swaraj too is three eyed: Self -purification, Hindu-Moslem unity, khaddar." (kanthapura Oxford Indian paperback,second edition pg.no. 10.) He manages to bring in swaraj in his every topic of discussion. One day he decides to narrate hari-katha of birth of Gandhiji putting him on same pedestal as with Siva, Krishna and other celestial beings.
The entire episode throws light on close nexus of religion and politics. Moorthy finds an opportunity in villagers' devotion in god to bring them alive to contemporary reality. He uses religious idiom to convey his message. Rather than jolting them rudely out of their religiously drugged state and presenting stark reality he dexterously maneuvers their religious sentiments. He realized immense power of faith which acted as cornerstone of their existence hence he replaced god and religion with Gandhi and adherence to swaraj respectively.
Moorthy is central character who leads Gandhian movement in Kanthapura. He had met Gandhi earlier and undertook the mission to spread his teaching and practices. He was in complete awe of the great being and his body showed signs of it. He felt like losing his identity and dissolving in great stream. It was a magical moment which made him realize futility of his life till now. He understood essence of his teaching and followed them with conviction .He gave up his education, changed sartorial preferences and decided not to marry.
He is an agent of Gandhi who worked as per directions of Mahatma. He ensured presence of women in hari-kathas and sought their contribution as well. Gandhi had firm faith in their abilities and worked for their emancipation. Jayramchar too in his subtle manner narrates story of Damyanti, Shakuntla and Yashoda the three legendary women famous for their exemplary courage. Gandhi sought to motivate them to display courage in fight for swaraj.
Slowly seeds of swaraj began to germinate in Kanthapura. Moorthy then proceeds to bridge the gap in society created by untouchability. It was Gandhi's biggest challenge to bring untouchables into the mainstream life. Centuries of caste practice had ossified into people's mind. It was an strenuous task to remove rigid blocks so that humanity could freely flow. Not only was it unethical and inhuman it was also crippling India's struggle for independence. Gandhi needed each and every individual to contribute in the struggle. how could the struggle be effective when it doesn't have full support? He saw tremendous potential lying dormant in women and lower caste. He strove to remove all obstacles and instill unity in people.
Moorthy had to struggle against social inertia which provided formidable resistance to change. Rao here shows how freedom struggle had to face internal resistance as well. Venkamma and Bhatta symbolize orthodox forces which feared losing its privileged status. They tried their best to deter Moorthy by sneers, jibes, social ostracism and even excommunication. But moorthy perseveres in his decision of mixing with lower caste. During the process he grows distant from his mother who couldn't bear his son's ways. Tension between mother and son grows and later she succumbs to it. Its beginning of upheaval in Kanthapura which was to face complete destruction.
Under leadership of Moorthy several young activists distributed books and charkha to everyone. Non-cooperation movement was in its full sway and Gandhi stressed on self-reliance. Not only it crippled British govt. and gave economic sustenance to masses it also nourished one's character in war for independence. However, here as well young activists had to face ire of traditional mind-set. Brahmins were livid as they were asked to do what was a job of lower caste weaver. But Moorthy succeeded in convincing Nanjamma and rest agreed too.
Skeffington coffee estate is centre of exploitation of natives. Not only are they paid less after exacting hours of work they are treated inhumanely. The new master forced them to submit their women to his lust. He was accused of murdering a brahmin who refused to yield his woman but walked out free. Moorthy is invited to at the estate to help them. fearing his reputation and popularity among the masses bade khan doesn't let him enter the estate. It triggers pent up humiliation and anger in coolies who despite moorthy's. pleas to shun violence indulged in scuffle with police and maistri.
He is gravely disappointed and announces three day fast as penance. This period of self-contemplation reveals him metaphysical truths. He emerges as more tolerant and loving. He forgives Venkamma's jibes. He learns to control his desires, emotions. He is ashamed when he remembered his feelings for Rachnna before. More and more people came to see him and revere him as it was an incredible feat. Moorthy's fast induces guilt in others and they decide to cast out violence from their lives. Their devotion for him is shown at his arrest. It is a dramatic scene where people of all caste are assembled standing next to each other to prevent his arrest. They not only peacefully resist but don't hit back. They courted arrests and faced police brutalities but stayed non-violent. They later had various marches and picketing of liquor shops in non-violent way.
In his absence Sankara and Rangamma carry out the mission. Rangamma established sevika-sangh to continue to offer passive resistance. Every section of society had dedicated its life to achieve swaraj. No one could have believed that same kanthapura would sacrifice everything to gain swaraj just following a person whom they never even saw.
Narayan's Waiting for Mahatma is set in 1940's around the time when Gandhi launched his 'Quit India' campaign. He brings in mahatma as a character in his novel who is accurate to the historical persona of Gandhi. Strict realist mode of novel doesn't have any scope for mythical version of Gandhi nor his celebration as savior who would lead them to victory over enemies. Another reason is Narayan's reservations against Gandhi's ideologies. C.P. Sharma in his book Novels of R.K. Narayan A Perspective writes "he may not share Gandhi's political views, his socio-economical reforms and his views on prohibition; but it is the essential humanity of Gandhi, his love for imperfections of common man that brings him closer to the novelist."
Like kanthapura the novel too shows influence of Gandhi on individuals. Although historical details are woven together it is mainly story of a young man sriram and his love bharti. Sharma comments "author doesn't try to present a political or social history of India but studies predicament of the ordinary people in the hour of historical events."
It tracks life of young sriram who till now had lived in secure and comfortable space with his granny. He is an ignorant adolescent who doesn't have much experience of life. Following his infatuation he ends up meeting Gandhi. That is the decisive moment of his life and it changes the course of his life for forever.
Gandhi's arrival in malgudi carries enormous significance. Not only does it play its part in structure of novel but also offers narayan a chance to observe closely people's reaction. News of his arrival spread like wildfire. From town officials to untouchables of malgudi, every section of society reverberated with effect of the news. While Mr. Natesh Chairman of Municipal was busy in arranging perfect reception, the collector was cautiously keeping it low profile. Being an agent of imperial rule he doesn't wish any trouble in his area. He diplomatically turns down suggestion to let Gandhi stay at Circuit House which had hosted governors. He is also wary of Gandhi's political agenda and tries to project his image of social reformist prior to his visit. Narayan here shows with subtle working how an image is created in eyes of public. The collector censors some lines in speech of chairman which he felt to be contradicting to the image he was trying to project.
The chairman on the other hand is enthusiastically preparing to impress Gandhi. He spent over 2 lakhs to decorate his palatial mansion. Being aware of Gandhi's fondness of khadi he drove to distant parts to get proper khadi dresses for himself and his family. He removed portraits of King George V and made walls abundant with portraits of national leaders. Narayan mocks at him when he comments that he created sets better than a director. For him Gandhi is like a celebrity and he wants to impress him. He doesn't care to know his thinking and practices. Like him most people who were enthusiastic at his arrival just cared to get a glimpse of him without ever taking pains to follow what he was preaching.
In many instances throughout the novel Narayan shows Gandhian philosophy falling on deaf ears. People give donations to harijan fund, war fund and absolve themselves of any guilt whatsoever arising out of their inaction. In kanthapura when Gandhian movement had just began it created its own symbols like khaddar, charkha etc. while coming to 1940's Gandhi's popularity wasn't same as in twenties. His symbols were ritualized hollow practices which had lost its essence. One had to cater to these symbols to show himself as a congress man.
Sriram has been influenced by Gandhi and he decides to take up job as directed by Gandhi but his original desire is to be with bharti. He accepts it because he finds no other alternative to meet her. Gandhi acts as a ruse for him. Dr. Sudarshan Sharma in the Influence of Gandhian Ideology on Indo-Anglian fiction, says "..apparently at the root of sriram's patriotic fervour there is nothing to suggest any special love for a particular cult, 'ism' or philosophy. It is merely a young man 's infatuation with a young girl who happens to have been brought up by Gandhi and believes in his ideology."
Later he is very much involved in the cause but lacks the conviction and maturity shown by bharti or by moorthy. He hardly understands seriousness of task at hand. He shifts to ruined shrine and gives up comfort that he enjoyed at his granny's place. But more than anything else it appeals to his youth. Gandhi never preached anyone to give up one's responsibilities ,in his case filial, to become devoted to swaraj. In kanthapura too, when sevika sangh is formed women performed their duties at cost of their household chores. Rangamma decides that it is not right to give up one kind of responsibility to serve another. For Sriram it is a matter of living in proximity to Bharti. He wants to show her that he too can perform heroic duties. He is proud when he is given a job to write 'Quit India'. It raises his self-esteem. He enjoys privilege of being a Gandhian. However he is not able to provide convincing answers when asked about his job. One particular instance is when he goes up to estate to write quit India. He stumbles before Mathieson to come up with convincing answer. At another instant he finds himself at loss in front of business values of timber contractor.
The dramatic scene at shopkeeper is another failure of sriram. He is able to garner their respect and admiration but his words fail to leave any impact. Dr. Sudarshan too finds problem in Sriram 's attitude. " this is because his attitude is confined to himself alone. He cannot see beyond present. Nor can he think in terms of abstract ideals. He wants only concrete facts." (pg 51. ibid.) such failures force him to interrogate his purpose and he fails to convince even himself. Consequently a period of ennui overwhelms him. He is desperate to get married while Bharti awaits mahatma's consent and puts her duties above her self.
He doesn't agree to go to jail with Bharti as he is not prepared for it. Where for Bharti it is an inevitable event and she courageously accepts it, Sriram on the other hand doesn't see any point in visiting jail. During her absence he meets Jagdish who is an extremist. He judges hi character and manipulates his little understanding and devotion of Gandhi to carry out his tasks. His constant encouragements seem to fill void in his life and he began to revere Jagdish. It also filled him with romantic illusions of his heroic deeds. He thinks of himself as an important contributor to swaraj and expects appreciation from Gandhi himself. His inflated self-worth is increased after his return from prison. However, Bapu consents to his marriage to Bharti.
Narayan presents in unequivocal terms influence of Gandhi in Waiting for Mahatma. He didn't appreciate mythification of Gandhi which elevated him beyond realms of real world. He tests Gandhian philosophy with apathetic attitude of people who are more concerned with their everyday affairs. The veneer of idealism has slipped and ugly reality lurking beneath it is apparent. While Rao captured exuberant mood of masses who were ready to sacrifice everything for swaraj, Narayan presents grim reality of society two decades later where not only has patriotic fervor subsided, Gandhi too has been relegated.