The Role Of Myth In The Man-Eater
Of Malgudi Essay, Research Paper
The Role of Myth
The Man-Eater of Malgudi
By Jonathan Kassian
In R.K. Narayan’s book The Man-Eater of Malgudi, there exists a deep mythical structure. The story of the peaceful printer Nataraj who must overcome the demon-like Vasu is structured very much like a myth. As myths and spirituality are implicit in Hindu society, the world of Malgudi is full of mythical elements. To complement these mythical elements, comparisons and references are made to various Hindu myths throughout the book, which act as signposts to the significance of what is going on in the story itself. The myths referred to give us greater insight into the action and into the characters themselves, by showing us more subtle aspects of the story which are juxtaposed against the myths. In The Man-Eater of Malgudi, myths serve to shed light on what is really going on in the world of Malgudi.
The battle between Vasu and Nataraj is framed perfectly in the context of myth. The action that occurs in the novel bears many similarities to other myths that are either mentioned or alluded to, in particular the Ramayana and the myth of Bhasmasura. The structure of the story is the same as a myth, with the protagonist facing an unstoppable enemy who eventually meets his end by his own hand.
To complement the mythical structure of the book, many references and allusions are made to other myths. Sastri is the one who seems to be the most associated with the scriptures and ancient wisdom, and serves to link the myths with reality. Rangi is also an important figure in this respect, not only through her name (which means Krishna) and the role she plays in the “rescue” of Kumar, but also through her reference to the notion of Dharma. The notion of Dharma and its complement, the notion of Moksa, put several of the characters in a new light. It is particularly interesting to look at the character of Nataraj with respect to his devotion. He at first appears to be completely and totally devoted, but we see that this is not necessarily true when put in the proper context.
The battle between Vasu and Nataraj, which makes up the storyline of the book, is structured like a myth. Even before we meet Vasu, we feel his impact by the silence that he causes amongst the regulars of Nataraj’s printing shop . His first act is to violate the sanctity of Nataraj’s back room, a symbol for the inner sanctum of the temple. Vasu’s body is characterized by his bull-neck and hammer-fist, characteristics which make him seem more like a beast than a man, and his “black halo” which immediately tells us that he is an evil figure.
In Vasu’s account of his life, he describes how he crippled his mentor, showing an utter lack of gratitude for the man who taught him and provided for him. In very little time, Vasu has shown disdain for almost everything that Nataraj holds dear: the caste system; the path of non-violence; respect for one’s elders; the sanctity of the family and of chastity; and the sanctity of life itself. He even shows that he is not above killing something that is part of Nataraj’s family when he kills Nataraj’s cat. The only thing left for him to insult is Nataraj’s devotion to the gods. Vasu does so when he kills a tiger, a symbol of Shiva, and a Garuda (eagle), said to be the messenger of Vishnu.
When Vasu plans to kill the temple elephant, it amounts to a direct attempt on the life of a god. Kumar is a sacred being associated with the temple, and represents the God Ganesha. Vasu is no longer just a killer of animals who disturbs the existence of Nataraj, but a true Rakshasa (demon) who threatens to destroy Nataraj’s way of life. As many demons have before, Vasu threatens to destroy an entire world, in this case the world of Nataraj. Nataraj later reflects that “The man-eater had destroyed my name, my friendships, and my world,” . Vasu forces Nataraj to take action against him, which he does (as have many mythical protagonists before him).
Vasu, however, eventually meets his end by his own hand. In trying to squash a mosquito that had landed on his head, his incredible strength crushes not only the fly, but Vasu himself by causing a fatal concussion. Vasu had, in a way, revealed his weakness when he said earlier “Night or day, I run when a mosquito is mentioned,” . The death of Vasu is compared to the death of the demon Bhasmasura who is tricked into placing his hands on his head by Krishna (disguised as a dancer) and is scorched to death by his fatal touch. Vasu’s death mirrors that of Bhasmasura in more than just that respect. Rangi’s name (which comes from Ragna or Ragnatha ) means Krishna, she is the temple dancer, and she is present at the death of Vasu (whether a direct cause or not).
Vasu is like a Rakshasa in many ways. His extraordinary strength and appearance are obvious indicators that Vasu is not a normal man. Nataraj also describes Vasu as possessing a “sixth sense” . Vasu seems to leave devastation in his wake, whether it be leaving the man who taught him crippled, turning Nataraj’s attic into a tanning factory, or annihilating the wildlife of Mempi forest. His killing of the sacred animals shows his disrespect for the gods, another feature of demons. When Vasu “kidnaps” Nataraj and leaves him stranded far from home, we can see a parallel between that event and the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana in the Ramayana . As well, he is seen as a super-human creature, a giant, by the town children (who are often the ones who identify disguised demons in myths and legends, because of their purity). He is also suspected to have poisoned Kumar, causing his illness. In the Vedas, illness is attributed to demons. If these indications were not enough to tell us that Vasu was a demon figure, there are the direct comparisons of Vasu to various demons that Sastri makes on pages 72-73.
Sastri is the character who seems to link myth (or religion) and reality. His name means “man of scriptures” . He possesses ancient wisdom which seems to perfectly frame everything that is going on in the novel. He is the one who draws the comparison between Vasu and the Rakshasas. As well, he is the one who seems to be in charge of Nataraj’s “inner sanctum” at the press. He performs pujas early on in the book, and makes pilgrimages to holy sites near the end. He is the one who puts Vasu’s death (and the death of all demons) into perspective by saying “…every demon carries within him, unknown to himself, a tiny seed of self-destruction” . On page 105, Sastri seems to predict the astrological cataclysm that will occur due to the aspecting of Jupiter. He says “If a fly settles on your nose at a crucial moment and annoys you, you may treat it as an astrological setback worked off” . This does not appear to be something cataclysmic, but the mosquito which lands on Vasu’s head at an inopportune moment has a very large impact on the outcome of the story. He is also the one who discovers the truth of how Vasu met his end by asking Rangi (or Krishna, as her name denotes) how he met his end. In that respect, as in many others, Sastri is the finder of truth.
The figure of Rangi is a very interesting one for several reasons. She is the temple prostitute, and in being a woman of the temple, she is technically married to the god of that temple, who is in this case Krishna. Yet her name means Krishna itself, and she plays the role of Krishna in the death of Vasu (with respect to the death of Bhasmasura). She is both the highest woman and the lowest woman. She is openly looked down upon, yet she merits at least a name, unlike Nataraj’s wife. An contrast emerges between her and Vasu when the light creates a “halo” around her and contrasts Vasu’s halo of black hair. This also seems to suggest that she is some sort of angel, if Vasu and his black halo represent a demon, creating an interesting juxtaposition of prostitute and angel.
Rangi also makes a very important comment when she says “Sir, I am only a public woman, following what is my dharma,” . It is said that if a prostitute performs her dharma scrupulously, then she acquired great powers. This is illustrated by the story of the prostitute who makes the river Ganges flow upstream because of the powers she received by following her dharma . This gives us a new way of looking at the death of Vasu. If we are meant to believe that Rangi has followed her dharma and acquired some sort of higher power, then Rangi could have caused Vasu to end his life through the blow to his head, as Krishna led Bhasmasura to end his life in a similar manner.
With the notion of dharma introduced by Ragni (or Krishna), the notion of moksa comes into play, because the two are interminably linked. In the novel, we see all three ways to liberation from the cycle of life and death, as described by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Ragni is the example of one who follows the path of unselfish action (karma yoga), or following one’s dharma. She is so unselfish that she is even willing to risk her personal happiness for the sake of the temple by aiding Nataraj in his attempt to stop Vasu from killing Kumar. Sastri is an example of one who follows the path of knowledge (jnana yoga). He is obviously familiar with many of the Hindu texts, performs all necessary rituals, and makes pilgrimages to holy sites. Muthu is the character that most exemplifies the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga). He does whatever he can to save his temple elephant, does much to improve the Mempi temple, observes the proper offerings to the temple goddess, and never visibly strays from the path of devotion.
Nataraj at first appears to be one who follows the path of devotion. When we first see his daily routine, he shows his devotion through his ritual bathing and prayer to the sun. He does all he can to help Kumar, and even sheds blood for him. However, Nataraj’s devotion on several occasions seems questionable. On the day that Sastri performs his Satyanarayana Puja (a tribute to Visnu performed by Brahmin on full-moon days ), Nataraj does nothing. Although Nataraj does much to organize the procession to celebrate the marriage of Krishna, at one point he says that he “enjoyed the status of being more important than the procession”. This would certainly not be an indication of his humility before the gods, or even respect for Krishna. A large part of devotion is chastity. While Nataraj is never unfaithful to his wife with Rangi, he is tempted on several occasions. However, this could be considered an indication of Nataraj’s devotion if he actually resisted the temptation, and wasn’t just too shy to confront Rangi.
Nataraj is also taken in by Vasu’s talk of science. He takes the stuffed tiger and keeps it, thereby keeping the memory of the murderous Vasu alive, as well as keeping Vasu’s science of taxidermy in Malgudi (not to mention the implications of trapping Shiva in the Queen Anne desk). When Nataraj is mounting the stairs to Vasu’s apartment, he says that the rational thing for a person to do is to approach things in a scientific frame of mind, and sympathizes with Vasu’s frustration at the world’s lack of scientific approach. In a way, science has already failed Nataraj once. In the Atharva Veda, the way of dealing with illness is by exorcising the demon who caused it . Nataraj has taken Kumar to the doctor, and he is no longer sick. But Kumar’s life is still in danger because Nataraj has not dealt with Vasu, the demon who caused Kumar’s illness. All these things show that Nataraj is not truly devoted to the gods, although he appears to be at first.
In the Man-Eater of Malgudi, myth highlights the deeper meaning in the society of Malgudi. With each myth mentioned or alluded to, the content of the story is put into a new light. The mythical structure of the story is perfectly complemented by all the references and allusions to various myths which occur throughout the story. Each reference gives an aspect of the story a new dimension by putting it against the framework of the myth. The world of Malgudi portrayed in the book is taken to a new level of meaning by the many mythical references and allusions made.
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