Sriram is twenty. As a mark of his coming of age his grandmother allows his the pass-book to his savings in the local bank, but Sriram is growing up in other ways, too, and an enchanting and unpredictable girl leads him into the entourage of Mahatma Gandhi.
These are the opening events in R K Narayan's novel. It is the finest thing he has yet achieved, and his story of the triumphs and tragedies of a raw young zealot in the service of Gandhi is distinguished for its warmth, its humour, its lack of sentimentality and the stamp of absolute truth.
Sriram's evolution into manhood is, for him, strange and bewildering process. Bharati, the girl he worship, is witty, infuriating, capable and, wonder of wonders, condescending to the moonstruck Sriram. Her first loyalty though, is to the Mahatma, a saint blessed with disconcerting common sense, a man whose tragedy is that he is so much greater than his followers. Most of them accept his ideas enthusiastically, and without realising it, pervert them to suit their coarser personalities. Sriram is inspired by Gandhi, but he is too easily influenced by glamorous patriots of the type of Jagadish, a terrorist.
It is a tale of remarkable insight into the upsurge of Indian nationalism as witnessed through the eyes and hearts of Sriram and Bharati, and told with the all genius and compassion we have come to expect from R.K Narayan.
I bought this book in 2010 on an impulse. It had been sitting in my shelves and then my box due to frequent shifting gathering dust and turning yellow due to moisture. The town of Malgudi with its description looks a great deal like the old Madras though it is described to be some town south of Trichy. I have seen it and had grown up in a house that was about 200 years old. So I can appreciate the scenes the author has depicted here.
Mahatma Gandhi also plays a good role in this book. The author has given many of his preaching by including Gandhiji as a character here. I some times wonder if the author himself was a volunteer participating in many stagings of Gandhiji. He has given an elaborate account of their simple but hard life and the enormous sacrifices they made, including their lives.
The book itself is divided into 5 parts. I had read the first and half the second part swiftly but after the third part a dull pace started settling in. It was like recounting the freedom struggle only through the eyes of Sriram. We all know that loves makes us do all kinds of strange things. Here the protagonist takes part in the freedom struggle just to win the heart of Bharati and to be close to her. The fifth part was a bit racy but it tested my patience enough to get to the part where Gandhiji gives his blessing for their marriage. He gives very strict order to the couple get married with or without his presence. Finally the book ends with Gandhiji getting shot and the rest is history.
Even though this is pure fiction, sometimes I felt like reading a history book. The events described in great detail had actually happened when the author was growing up and so it was like he was recounting those events. I couldn't read past twenty pages at a time and take a break. The book failed to keep me hooked. I know there are many books I had enjoyed of this same author during my childhood, but some how this book was a disappointment to me.