Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: Mr. Sampath—The Printer of Malgudi

I first found out about R.K. Narayan in a review and appreciation in The New Criterion – a journal to which I sometimes subscribe – in October 2006. The review encompassed the Everyman Library's two collections, which were published in 2006. I ended up buying the second one, which contains Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert and Waiting for the Mahatma. The author of the article, Sunil Iyengar, notes that Narayan's heroes often fail at what they set out to do, but in the end they succeed in some bizarre way: "They will fulfill their primary aim, which is to distinguish themselves somehow, but their distinction must flow from an altered relationship with community or tradition." This statement plays out beautifully in Mr. Sampath. Sampath is in fact not the central character in the novel, which is set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi in southern India immediately before World War II: The main character, Shrinivas, is the younger son from a rich family. He has literary pretensions, so he moves to Malgudi to publish a journal called The Banner, which he writes almost entirely himself. His wife and young son soon follow. Mr. Sampath is his printer, and we gradually come to learn more about Sampath through Shrinivas. Sampath is an ambitious man – even more so than Shrinivas – and his ambitions take him out of his print shop (forcibly) and into the dawning of the Indian film industry. The novel is suffused with the creation of cultural hybrids, as the town comes in contact with Western culture – ancient religion and the Hindu gods intermingle with the printing press, cricket, motion pictures, the Royal Mail, banks and motorcars. The Indians are creating the hybrids themselves, and they encounter many bumps along the way (the novel's climax describes a very funny epic fail). In one hilarious passage, the film studio is blessed in religious ceremony, and Shrinivas, ever the learned outsider, makes the connection that the movie camera is the new object of worship. Narayan's characters are all a little eccentric and self-defeating, but his satire is gentle and generous. I very much liked this novel, and I look forward to reading the other two works in the volume.

Challenges: Twenty-Ten (book written before I was born); South Asian book challenge; Winter Reading Challenge (book not set in UK or USA); TBR challenge

No comments: