Who, for instance, would dare say that Don Quixote’s tragic and lovable ‘illusions’ are only appearance and the real world is that of Sancho Panza? How then are we to judge the issues involved? Professor Chevalier’s answer is that irony is ‘a mode of escape from the fundamental problems and responsibilities of life. More specifically, he says, ‘Irony characterizes the attitude of one, who when confronted with the choice of two things that are mutually exclusive, chooses both.
This is but another way of saying that he chooses neither. He cannot bring himself to give up one for the other, and gives up both. But he reserves his right to derive from each the greatest possible passive enjoyment. And this enjoyment is irony. There is a general tendency to accept that irony and humour must co-exist. Sainsbury, for example, remarks that “an ironist without humour is almost inconceivable.”
Irony works as a base for Narayan’s humour:
Irony can be tragic also, but in Narayan our concern is mainly the irony that works as a base for Narayan’s humour the instances of which are found at every step in his novels. Take the most glaring example, Raju; the guide- turned-saint who had embarked on a fast for fourteen days and his condition was serious—so serious that he collapses on the twelfth day. And on that height of the tragic scene, Narayan sends crowds of people who come to see the saint as if they were going to a fair. An American takes a movie of the scene.
Press reporters go on sending their stories. People eat stalls, drink, laugh and see publicity cinema shows—while Raju was dying by inches. Here this incongruous mixture of tragedy and irony creates bitter humour. Mr. Sampath’s financial ventures are humorous because they are so full of irony. The very base of the novel waiting for the Mahatma is ironical, because, Sriram, the hero plunges into the national movement not because he was a great patriot and loved his country but he loved Bharati:
“Narayan has no such ambition; he merely studies an ordinary young man’s reaction to an issue much larger than the young man’s comprehension. There is no attempt at idealizing Sriram’s interest in the national issue; it invariably remains subsidiary to his interest in a pretty girl. Thus to condemn Waiting for the Mahatma as an inadequate presentation of the Gandhian movement is to condemn it for not doing something Narayan never set out to do.”
The entire story of The Bachelor of Arts is full of humour:
The entire story of The Bachelor of Arts is full of humour. Chandran’s designs to see Malathi at close quarters are as humorous as the vehement quarrel of the fathers of Chandran and Malathi over the superiority of the horoscopes—as if the whole world depended on horoscopes alone. The hero leaves his home because he was disappointed in love and then comes back quietly marries another girl—the transformation is as convincing as it is full of ironic laughter. Margayya’s career in The Financial Expert is replete with a rich texture ironic humour.
Boisterous carefree laughter also rings through the pages of Narayan:
Boisterous carefree laughter also rings through the pages of Narayan. Swami, the schoolboy and his friends go through all sorts of funny adventures and remind us of a subdued Tom Sawyer and his gang. The English Teacher with its otherwise sombre atmosphere has its moments of laughter when Narayan describes the hostel life scenes.
Mr. Sampath and Raju keep us laughing in our sleeves as they through their career, bluffing their customers or clients, helping friends, cheating others—and ending in a complete collapse of themselves. In The Guide when the villagers are shown an anti-malaria film at the fasting place of Raju, a screen-size close up of the mosquito came on the screen and the villagers declared that it was natural that with such mosquitoes foreign people were bound to fall sick. But mosquitoes in our country were quite small and so quite harmless! In all his novels, intellectual idea and humour go hand in hand; his novels are “pensive comedies”.
Ironic and Harmonious Story Teller:
The key note of Narayan’s interest is his very minute observation and subtle ironic harmonious way of telling his story. There is, in his novels, ‘scarcely audible laughter’ shot through all the incidents. Swami’s cricket eleven in search of a regular or even an irregular playground is a masterpiece of narration that is equally humorous. The very creation of the character of Mr. Sampath is full of subtle irony.
The concerns of Prof. Gajapathy and Principal Brown over dropping the letter ‘u’, in the spelling of ‘honour’ is presented to us by Narayan with a light smile and with no comments. The rise and the fall of the fortunes of Raju, the guide, have an undercurrent of humour, which endears Raju permanently to us. Mr. Sampath, bluffing his customers, riding confidently on the wave of success and at last falling under the debris of the financial crash and yet maintaining his confidence is blood brother to Raju, the guide, who got maximum from the tourists and rose to success on the dancing engagement of Rosie to fall at last and end as a martyr to superstition and dogma.
Both of them are rogues, but the type of rogues we love and like and take to our heart. Sriram, the patriot, who follows the Mahatma and plunges into the revolutionary movements, does all this not out of patriotic motive, but out of his love for Bharati. This entirely changes the aspect of his activities from heroic to humorous. That indeed is a typical Narayan trick.
Narayan’s novels are straightforward realistic pictures undisturbed by fantasy. The intellectual interest is the main spring of his inspiration and that is the angle from which he approaches all the aspects of his subject matter. The result is that he analyses actions and diagnoses motives. All these lead to subtle undercurrent of humorous remarks. He has not to find humorous incidents to make his readers laugh.
The very way in which he narrates his story creates its own humour; for example, Mr. Sampath says, “My dear Sir, I don’t know what you think of me, but I treat this bridge opening as my own business. When a customer steps over this threshold all his business becomes mine; if you have trust in Sampath, you will be free from many unnecessary worries.”
Narayan’s Ironic Vision:
Narayan’s comic vision is ironical. His all embracing irony -which includes the particular social context in his men and women who have their various transactions and the existential reality based on their particular experiences. The clash between the tradition and modernity in which Narayan’s characters are sandwiched has ironical implications.
In his novels modernity is a rash and impulsive force that disturbs the peaceful equilibrium of traditional life. The characters in the midst of this conflict emerge as comic and grotesque figures. He is “a pioneer in the tradition of ironic realism in Indo-Anglian fiction. In his novels, irony is not only ingrained in occasional episodes of the narrative, but is a built in phenomenon in plot, character and style.”
Narayan’s comprehensive knowledge of the perception of inherent irony in human life makes him a master of comedy who is not unaware of the tragedy of human situation, he is, neither an intolerant critic of Indian ways and modes nor their fanatic defender; he is, on the whole, content to snap Malgudi life’s little ironies, knots of satiric circumstance. And tragicomedies of mischance and misdirection. At his best—as in The English Teacher—he can present smiles and tears together, smiling through the tears in things and glimpsing the rainbow magnificence of life.
The basic comic situation in Narayan’s novels is one of deviation from the normal and in the plots of his novels he follows the usual pattern of irony—order, disorder, order. The Bachelor of Arts presents a moment from the innocence of childhood to the recklessness and romanticism of youth. Chandran, the protagonist, sways between the innocence of the child and maturity of the adult.
A student of history and later the first secretary of History Association, Chandran suggests: “Historians should be slaughtered first” as the topic for the College Union Debate. This is highly ironical and suggests the shape of things to come. Chandran, a first rated lover, renounces the world in sheer disgust and becomes a sanyasi and then return to the conventional family fold and leads the life of a devoted husband.
The Bachelor of Arts first struck the significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran, and with each successive novel it became an integral element in Narayan’s comic fictional art. With Mr. Sampath Narayan’s comic vision became more manifest and in The Financial Expert it blossomed into maturity. The Guide which belongs to the difficult genre of serious comedy treats with rare skill the stuff of tragedy in term of ironic comedy.
In The Man Eater of Malgudi the ‘puranic’ mythical pattern is suggestively used. It has ironical implications. Even the demonic character of Vasu, the taxidermist is noticeable for an element of the comical and the grotesque.
Narayan’s irony is free from the satiric spirit of condemnation and censure. His ironic vision is closer in spirit to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens than to Voltaire, Swift or Thackeray. Narayan’s closeness to Chekhov is striking—the same objectivity, the same freedom from comment, the same intricate alliance of humour with tragedy—the comic irony with age, as Greene puts it—and the same seeming indirection even with which the characters, on the last page, appear to vanish into life. Narayan’s light vivid style with sense of time passing, of the unrealized beauty of human relationship so often recalls Chekhov’s. Commenting on Narayan’s irony and humour Jacqueline Austin observes:
Narayan may share Faulkner’s taste for the grotesque, but he keeps his reader’s smiling—his grotesqueries are more folklorish than nightmarish. Vasu, Daisy, even Raju, the cuckolder turned Guru (in The Guide) are all like Faulkner’s people, creatures tricked by fate to become their fundamental selves—but their tragic flaws evoke a compassion of laughter, not a shiver of horror. Malgudi melodramas may share some motivating factors with those of Yoknapatawpha country, but the sensibility in charge is a far less tortured one.
Endowed with a humanistic vision, Narayan observes the follies and eccentricities, the revolts and retreats of the people of Malgudi. The Malgudi folk cherish their favourite illusions but in course of time their cherished dreams and desires shatter; their deviations from tradition and society disappear. Finally the victory of traditions and society is assured.