• Bridging Tradition and Modernity | Karmic justice in The Man-Eater of Malgudi: A throwback to the Jataka and Panchatantra tales

    Dhruba Basu

    In the last ‘Bridging Tradition and Modernity’ post, we looked at how RK Narayan had adapted the popular mythical tale of Mohini-Bhasmasur to a modern setting in his 1961 novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. In the original myth, Mohini, the only female avatar of Lord Vishnu, deliberately brings about the downfall of the demon Bhasmasur by taking advantage of his lust for her. This detail is modified by Narayan in a way that gives us a somewhat absurdly comical climax and suggests another source of inspiration for the author: the Jataka and Panchatantra tales, the immensely popular animal-themed moral fables most Indians have come across at some point or the other during their childhoods. These tales are rooted in Buddhist thought and are believed to be among the oldest in the subcontinent, dating back about 1600-1800 years. 

    But first things first: what happens in the climax of The Man-Eater of Malgudi? As noted in the previous post, it involves the hereditary dancer Rangi revealing to protagonist Nataraj that his unruly tenant Vasu has plans to kill a temple elephant during a procession. Vasu is a taxidermist who rents the attic in Nataraj’s house. He sees the sale of a stuffed elephant as a huge business opportunity, and is not concerned with the possibility that trying to kill it during a procession will lead to a stampede resulting in the death of many. 

    Nataraj takes it upon himself to stop Vasu, but neither he, nor his friends, nor even the police of Malgudi can deter the taxidermist. 

    In this situation, it comes as a shock to the townsfolk when they learn on the day of the procession that Vasu has died. They suspect that Nataraj, who has had various reasons to be unhappy with his big, loud, bullying tenant, is behind it and accuse him of murder. Nataraj denies it, but no one believes him - until Rangi clears things up. 

    One of Vasu’s many mistresses, Rangi was with him the afternoon that he died. She tells everyone that Vasu had had a weakness: he could not deal with mosquitoes. It had been Rangi’s job to fan them away from his body when he napped. However, on that particular day, she too had fallen asleep in this act, and was awoken by his screams to find him flailing in response to the onslaught of unhindered mosquitoes. It was in this process that Vasu landed a resounding blow on his own head, with the intention of killing a mosquito, but with a rather different result - he killed himself. And thus, the town of Malgudi is rid of the menace of Vasu. 

    The parallels between Rangi and Mohini have already been established. Both are considered objects of desire by men and both bring about the downfall of characters who are considered nuisances (asuras or demons in the case of Mohini, Vasu in the case of Rangi). Rangi initially does so at significant risk to her own life, when she informs Nataraj of the threat to the elephant. Her second betrayal, of falling asleep instead of swatting mosquitoes, appears at face value to be a mistake...but is it?

    Conspiracy theories aside, the other interesting thing about this climax is the sense of an ironic karmic force at work, which brings us back to the possibility that, in writing this novel, Narayan was inspired not only by myth, but also by folk tales - specifically the Jataka and Panchatantra tales. 

    As AK Ramanujan pointed out in his introduction to Folktales from India, the Jataka and Panchatantra tales are political in that they frequently pit small, weak animals against large, strong ones, with the former emerging victorious through clever ruses that play on the vices of the latter. It is this ironic appeal, of a supposedly weak creature fighting against odds to take down a larger one, that anchors some of the oldest folk tales known to the subcontinent. A similar irony can be seen at work in the climactic events of The Man-Eater of Malgudi. A big man with big plans - felled by his own idiocy. A large, menacing creature brought down by a smaller, ‘weaker’ one (which describes both the mosquitoes and Rangi). A sense of karmic justice pervades this climax, delivered through animals - a planned injustice against an elephant is the provocation and the relentlessness of a mosquito is the instrument of justice. One can almost imagine RK Narayan giving these animals a voice. 

    There is surely also something political about having Rangi, a hereditary dancer considered of ‘low status’ by traditionalists, risking her own life to deliver Malgudi from its demon. In the end, what we have is a 20th-century novel that combines elements of a popular myth and ubiquitous folk tales to produce a black comedy with feminist undertones, both a tribute to RK Narayan’s inventiveness and the timeless relevance and adaptability of our earliest tales!