rk narayan banyan tree cover

Pic: Courtesy Amazon.co.uk

R.K. Narayan is my favorite Indian writer. I don’t know who is second on my list… in any case it’s not germane to this blog post. Under the Banyan Tree is a collection of short stories, arguably one of his finest books. It was the book that made me go buy every other book R.K. Narayan had published (this was before the Amazon.com era so it required some old-school commitment).

In the past few years, I’ve had many occasions to remember Under the Banyan Tree usually when reading about sportspersons going through a “slump”. The story of Nambi, a gifted village storyteller, has much to teach us so let me walk you through the key excerpts.

A decrepit village, an illiterate story-teller and an enchanter..

The population used the highway as the refuse ground and in the backyard of every house drain water stagnated in green puddles. Such was the village. It is likely that the people of the village were insensitive: but it is more than likely that they never noticed their surroundings because they lived in a kind of perpetual enchantment. The enchanter was Nambi the story-teller. He was illiterate, in the sense that the written word was a mystery to him; but he could make up a story, in his head, at the rate of one a month; each story took nearly ten days to narrate.

On the nights he had a story to tell he lit a small lamp and placed it in a niche in the trunk of the banyan tree. Villagers as they returned home in the evening saw this, went home, and said to their wives, “Now, now, hurry up with the dinner, the story-teller is calling us.” As the moon crept up behind the hillock, men, women, and children gathered under the banyan tree.

Storytelling on an epic scale — as a many act play — narrated over multiple nights

He opened the story with a question. Jerking his finger towards a vague, far-away destination, he asked, “A thousand years ago, a stone’s throw in that direction, what do you think there was? It was not the weed-covered waste it is now, for donkeys to roll in. It was not the ash-pit it is now. It was the capital fo the king…” The king would be Dasaratha, Vikramaditya, Asoka, or anyone that came into the old man’s head; the capital was called Kapila, Kridapura, or anything. Opening thus, the old man went on without a pause for three hours. By then brick by brick the palace of the king was raised. The old man described the dazzling durbar hall where sat a hundred vassal kings, ministers, and subjects; in another part of the palace all the musicians in the world assembled and sang; and most of the songs were sung over again by Nambi to his audience; and he described in detail the pictures and trophies that hung on the walls of the palace….

It was story-building on an epic scale. The first day barely conveyed the setting of the tale, and Nambi’s audience as yet had no idea who were coming into the story. As the moon slipped behind the trees of Mempi Forest Nambi said, “Now friends, Mother says this will do for the day.” He abruptly rose, went in, lay down, and fell asleep long before the babble of the crowd ceased.

The light in the niche would again be seen two or three days later, and again and again throughout the bright half of the month. Kings and heroes, villains and fairy-like women, gods in human form, saints and assassins, jostled each other in that world which was created under the banyan tree. Nambi’s voice rose and fell in an exquisite rhythm, and the moonlight and the hour completed the magic. The villagers laughed with Nambi, they wept with him, they adored the heroes, cursed the villains, groaned when the conspirator had his initial success, and they sent up to the gods a heartfelt prayer for a happy ending…

And so the enchantment continued. Month after month, year after year. It had to end someday of course. And it did.

On one of the full moon nights, with the village at his feet, Nambi paused after one of his sentences. He struggled to continue and he stuttered and he fumbled. He didn’t understand why the words, which normally flowed like a babbling brook, wouldn’t come out. He kept quiet for an hour waiting for something to happen. Nothing. The crowd gradually dispersed. He tried again the next day but was similarly tongue-tied. After spending a few weeks in meditation, Nambi gets the entire village to come listen to his “greatest story”.

Nambi’s greatest story

Nambi came out of the temple when everyone had settled and said: “It is the Mother who gives the gifts; and it is she who takes away the gifts. Nambi is a dotard. He speaks when the Mother has anything to say. He is struck dumb when she has nothing to say. But what is the use of jasmine when it has lost its scent? What is the lamp for when all the oil is gone? Goddess be thanked…. These are my last words on this earth; and this is my greatest story.” He rose and went into the sanctum.

The rest of his life (he lived for a few more years) was one consummate silence.

I thought of Nambi when Adam Gilchrist announced his retirement — after a test match in which he had missed 2 or 3 catches that were normally ‘regulation’ catches (by his standards at least). He took that as a sign that his reflexes had attenuated. I thought of Nambi again during Tiger Woods’s struggles (looks like he may turned the corner!), and most recently when Rahul Dravid announced his retirement.