Short Summary of “The Bachelor of Arts” by R.K. Narayan

The world offers a more inscrutable fate in Narayan’s second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), where the youthful energy and irony of the young graduate Chandran only take him so far. Narayan’s dislike for the colonial education Swami and Chandran receive seems to have hardened into conviction by now: the system of education churns out “clerks for business and administrative offices,” and reduces India to a “nation of morons.”

But a lot of clerks is what a dependent economy needs; there is really no way out for the intelligent and sensitive Chandran, who joins, as reluctantly as Swami once did, other adolescent students in playing at being grown up and serious. He is not at ease in doing so; he feels “distaste for himself’ as the secretary of his college’s historical association; he tries to keep his distance from the revolutionary student and the poet student; he scrapes through his final examinations, feeling “very tender and depressed.”

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It is love for Malathi a girl sighted on the banks of the local river that brings relief from the utter dreariness of his preparations for adult life. But when he finally persuades his parents to arrange his marriage with the girl, whom he never gets to speak to, the horoscopes cannot be matched. A distraught Chandran runs away from home, and becomes a wandering sadhu for some weeks.

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But he soon begins to feel himself a fraud in that role the Brahminical past of his ancestors can no longer be retrieved and when he returns to Malgudi, to a semi-secure job and an arranged marriage with a beautiful young girl, Susila with a good dowry, he is quick to denounce romantic love, quick to accept the smallness of his horizons and settle down to “a life of quiet and sobriety.”

Chandran is one of the first in Narayan’s long gallery of young restless drifters who, hungry for adventure, very quickly reach the limits to their world, and then have to find ways of reconciling themselves with it. The reconciliation itself can never be complete. You can see again and again in Narayan’s novels how the encounter with the half-baked modernity of colonialism has deracinated Indians like Chandran, has turned them into what Narayan, in an unusually passionate moment in The English Teacher, describes as “strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage.”

It is this a part-feudal, part-modern setting of inchoate longing and vague dissatisfactions and intellectual impotence; the confused inner life of a fragmented make shift society that has yet to figure out its past or future it is this, more than the economy and simplicity of Narayan’s artistic means, that reminds one of Chekhov. Like Chekhov’s, Narayan’s realism can seem both homely and nuanced at the same time.


Narayan never casts sufficient light on the larger social and historical setting of his fiction, the major events British colonialism, Indian independence, the Emergency through which his characters drift. Even a quite real setting goes under the imaginary name of Malgudi; and only a few, easily missed domestic details hint at the fact that Swami and Chandran, along with many other of Narayan’s main protagonists, are Brahmins, marginalized by a fast- changing world.

Nevertheless, the lack of direct political comment in Narayan’s novels doesn’t prevent one from seeing in them now all the anxieties and bewilderments and disappointments of a generation of Indians expelled from the past into a new world.

This tortuous initiation into modern life, which Narayan himself underwent, is what gives his work, particularly the early novels and despite the inevitable comedy of small-town ambition and drift an unexpected depth of suffering, which is all the greater for not being perceived or acknowledged by the characters in his novels. It is where Narayan seeks consciously to acknowledge and dramatize that suffering that his art loses its special tension and resonance.


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