R K Narayan is a great novelist who still lives in the mind of readers, India as well as abroad. Narayan had more ‘spell-bound power’ and offered a more consistent, prolific output over 66 more years than any of the other internationally acclaimed Indian writers of fiction in English. Novelist, Graham Greene was an admirer of his novels and has said about Narayan, “Since the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the novelist I most admire in the English language”. Several R K Narayan studies have traced in his novels-humour, irony, burlesque pattern, romantic comedy, the novel of ideas and fable. He has always been drawn to the lives of ordinary men and women, taking us inside the experiences of people who remind us of our neighbours, or our siblings or ourselves. He has created for his oeuvre a complex and realistic city, Malgudi, generally considered the literary synthesis of Mysore, where Narayan has lived much of his life, and Madras (now Chennai), where he was born.
The Painter of Signs is a novel teeming with clashes between tradition and modernity and highlights the change in human outlook about some of the cherished ideals, established institutions and accepted values. Raman, the hero of The Painter of Signs, is a graduate but he is not affected by modern trends, beliefs and practices. Raman is depicted in the third person, but we are rarely outside his head: the world is shown as he sees it, and his vision is limited. He is very characteristic of the figures who populate Narayan’s novels: full of “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Raman is the “painter of signs” of the title; he paints signs for small businesses in the fictional town of Malgudi. He is an artist, a craftsman who believes in the importance of his work, and takes it seriously. In the early pages of the novel, we follow Raman dealing with various eccentric customers, and the gentle wit and subtle humour of the writing reassure us that we are indeed in an enchanted and enchanting fictional world.
Raman is a bachelor, living with an aged aunt, and then, Raman meets with and, although he doesn’t quite realise it himself, falls in love with a newcomer to town, Daisy – an unusual Western name for an Indian. She is independent and is working on a government scheme promoting birth control. (This novel was published in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and birth control was then very high on the agenda.) And, to go with her un-Indian name, she is also very independent: disciplined, strong-willed, business-like, and unattached. In a strongly patriarchal society, a young woman, on her own, looking after herself unaided and unintimidated, was something of a rarity. She employs Raman to paint various signs for her campaign, and soon, he finds himself accompanying her on tours around various remote villages, as she speaks to massed assemblies of strangers on the intimate details of birth control with unembarrassed and business-like frankness.
For Raman is attracted to her, although it is unclear whether this is love or a manifestation of his unfulfilled sexual desire. But when he fantasises about her, as he frequently does, he imagines Daisy as someone dependent on him. For this, after all, is what he has unwittingly absorbed in the society in which he has grown up: the woman is weak, and man, being the stronger, protects woman; and hence, the woman is dependent on man; and hence, so should Daisy be dependent on him. The very notion of the strong-willed and determined Daisy being dependent upon a milksop like Raman is, of course, absurd, but Raman does not see the absurdity of it. Until, one night, the fantasy of Daisy being dependent upon him slips over into a fantasy of Daisy being dominated by him, and he tries to rape her. She, alert to the situation, gives him the slip; and even if she hadn’t, it seems unlikely that Raman would have had the strength to get the better of her. Raman almost immediately regrets his attempt. When he meets Daisy again, he is shamefaced. But so wrapped up is he in his self, so unaware is he of Daisy as an autonomous being, that, quite without irony, he thanks her for saving him from himself: it hardly occurs to him that saving him must surely have been the last thing on Daisy’s mind.
Narayan has not placed the female protagonist, as is conventionally done, as the guardian of tradition and culture in this novel. Still, Daisy in the traditional sari embodies the post-colonial tussle between modernity and tradition. The Western attitude to work and social changes is emphasized in Daisy’s character. Her longing for privacy and the concept of a nuclear family was the result of her western education. Unlike many Indian women, Daisy is courageous, determined and industrious. Daisy is willing to take risks and confront dangers. Daisy is adventurous in spirit and haughty in manner. That she has the tenacity of will is evident in the resistance she brings to bear on the Christian missionary organization to foil its attempt to convert her. In return for the help she received from it she agreed to change her name to Daisy. Trained in social work by Christian missionaries, she espouses the cause of arresting the population growth by educating the poor people like slum-dwellers and rustics about the need of having nuclear families. In the treatment of the major heroines of Narayan’s novels, Savitri in The Dark Room, Rosie in The Guide and Daisy in The Painter of Signs, the novelist has certainly shown tremendous change and movement in the quest for women’s independence.
While Daisy discards all history or tradition inimical to her rigid philosophy of life, Raman is unable to face the kind of reality she is so bent on maintaining at all costs. Narayan seems to dread the fate of the male in the new social order based on rejections— Raman’s aunt rejects the new, liberated woman and opts for freedom to pursue her God; Raman rejects his aunt’s God in his quest for a rational approach to life; and finally, there is Daisy rejecting everything for her freedom as an individual. The issues of sexual politics, romantic love, marriage, family planning and women’s liberation are sign-posted within a design of ironic humour in this novel.
Narayan’s new woman like Daisy is bold, self-reliant and assertive. She struggles for freedom, asserts equality and searches for identity. In the process, she empowers not only herself but also her man. Narayan’s new woman is involved in bringing positive changes not only in her man but also in society. Daisy claims to have little time for love, even though she seems to need it as much as Raman, and eventually drops Raman after agreeing to marry him. The novel ends with Raman trying to feel relieved, trying to recover his old life of idleness in Malgudi. This is Romantic Irony or Irony of self-betrayal in the novel. Raman finds that he has lost his beloved aunt but not gained a wife to replace her. Narayan’s discrete narrative voice is never one-sided dogmatic. As he tells in A Tiger for Malgudi- human ties cannot be defined in just black-and-white terms and it is the masters of Romantic irony such as R K Narayan who make us or readers fully aware of their complexity.