Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Guide - A Review

Writing a book review is a little tricky; how do you talk about the story without revealing too much or too little? The Guide is just such a book.

Guide film poster - 1965
A lot of people, myself including, are familiar with the hindi movie, ‘Guide’ (1965). Starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, this movie boasts of some great songs which include ‘Aaj phir jeenay kee tamana hai’, ‘ Gata rahay mera dil’ and ‘ Piya tose naina lagay reh’, to name a few. What I didn’t know was that the storyline of the movie was based on R.K.Narayan’s novel, The Guide.

Narayan is one of the leading figures of early Indian literature in English (read more about the author here). His prose is simple but arresting, his characters are memorable and his writing is littered with symbolism. At least that’s how I felt after reading this book (which happens to be the first of his works I’ve read).

The Guide is Raju’s story; a young man living in the fictional town of Malgudi who transforms from a tourist guide to a spiritual one, completely by chance. Raju is an uneducated tourist guide with the gift of gab. He is popularly known as ‘Railway Raju’ among the many tourists who come to visit the historical sites at Malgudi from all over India. His placid life takes a dramatic turn when Rosie, a beautiful dancing girl, comes to Malgudi with her husband, Marco (Raju gives him this name owing to his tourist garb), an anthropologist. Rosie is very unhappy in her marriage; her husband is more interested in old ruins than in his young wife. Also, he frowns upon her passion for dance. She finds love for her and her craft in Raju and so bewitched is he by her that he throws all caution to the wind and becomes her lover. In the process he not only loses his vocation as a tourist guide, his shop at the railway station, his home but also his self-respect as all and sundry in his town come to know of the affair, including Marco. Even Raju's mother leaves him after he refuses to turn out Rosie from the house, who on Marco’s departure from Malgudi, turns to Raju for shelter and help.

Unlike Raju, who is an uneducated boy, Rosie is both educated and talented. Dancing is her passion and she places it above everything. She forces Raju into arranging dance acts for her and thus, from a tourist guide, Raju becomes her manager. Money starts pouring in but a distance comes in between Raju and Rosie. He feels jealous of her many admirers and wants her to concentrate on her dance only. Differences creep up between the two as Rosie tires of Raju’s constant scrutiny and demands. An unexpected letter from Marco’s lawyer to Rosie leads Raju to commit forgery for which he is arrested and sentenced to prison.

So how does he become a spiritual guide? It is because of Velan that he assumes this role. Velan, a peasant, finds Raju sleeping in the village temple (having nowhere else to go, this is where he is resting after his release from prison) and mistakes him for a swami or a learned man. Soon the entire village throngs to Raju for solution of problems. They treat him with reverence and bring him gifts and other offerings. He plays the role of the holy man to perfection and enjoys this easy going existence. But he is put to the test when drought hits the village and surrounding areas. He must pray and fast for twelve days – a daunting task and one which Raju cannot escape from. Will he fast for twelve days? Does it rain on the twelfth day? Narayan leaves these questions unanswered.

It is interesting to note how Narayan uses symbolism throughout the novel. The construction of the railway station denotes prosperity yet for Raju the train carries lust and, finally, destruction, in the form of Rosie. Raju is a young opportunist; uneducated yet street-smart. The railway station provided him the opportunity of becoming a tourist guide. Rosie’s dancing abilities was his ticket to wealth and success. And finally, the opportunity of becoming a swami at a time when he had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The "Serpent Girl" (Guide - 1965)
Although Raju is the protagonist, Rosie’s character makes a strong impact on the reader; she is quite the femme fatale. For all her mood swings and helpless gestures, she is a feminist to the core. She rises above all odds, an unhappy marriage and an over bearing lover, to live the life of her dreams; as a dancer. She continues, with greater success, her dance performances even after Raju goes to jail. She is, in a way, the “serpent girl” who casts a spell on Raju and then, like the king cobra, whose dance she wants to watch as soon as she steps off the train, fills his life with venom. 

Zia Mohyeddin
What makes this book a great read is its simplicity. The story moves smoothly with no dramatic twists but enough drama to keep you wondering. Each character plays a role, big or small, in shaping Raju’s life. Narayan’s magic lies in his ability to create a story out of simple everyday situations. His themes are universal; failure, love, success, fulfillment of dreams, money, power. And it is this universality which resonates with the reader. Thanks to mel u at The Reading Life for posting Narayan’s short story which led me to discover this amazing author.

A little more trivia on The Guide; our very own Zia Mohyeddin played the role of Raju on stage in Cambridge, London in 1961. Read more about it here.

Photographs: Google images