R. K. Narayan is one of the postcolonial writers of India who are found to project the nation building attitude in their writings. His Waiting for the Mahatma, set in the surroundings of the writer’s created village Malgudi, is woven against the unconventional backdrop of the freedom movement. But in spite of using directly the national experience as the central theme as did Raja Rao, Narayan puts it in the background giving preference to the personal narrative.
In Waiting for the Mahatma, the story develops through the development of Sriram’s character, his encounter with different situations and his romance with Bharoti. At first, Sriram is presented a lazy and complacent young high school graduate living with his grandmother. He has no knowledge of the condition of the country. But once he meets and falls in love at first sight with a young woman, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and is involved in the freedom struggle. Actually his development through the novel from part 1 to 5 is our medium to know different aspects of the novel.
The protagonist, Sriram, is an insipid person who can be easily influenced by anyone. At the outset of the novel, in Part I, we acknowledge that he grows up under the loving care of his grandmother, after the early death of his parents. In that time his life was controlled by his granny. When he is twenty, his grandmother hands over the fat sum of money she had been saving in his name. His irresponsibility is known immediately, when he wants to withdraw a huge sum of Rs. 250/-, but his watchful grandma restricts it to a decent Rs. 50/-. He had no choice rather obey her.
Then he came into contact with Bharati and fell into love at first sight. He met her as she was making tin collection for the freedom movement. Bharati’s father had been shot dead while offering Satyagraha against the British during the first Non-cooperation Movement. She, who was just an infant then, was adopted and brought up by the Sevak Sangh, a Gandhian institute, as a foster daughter to Gandhi. Bharati has no existence without Gandhi. She has no independent character of her own. She only symbolises Gandhi model of love, non-violence and freedom.
Sriram comes into contact with Gandhi through Bharati. The nearer he goes to Bharati the more he learns about Gandhi. Sriram left his Granny at Kabir Road at night leaving behind his household things and went to become a non-violent soldier of Gandhi. His aim was to remain with Bharati. “Gandhiji welcomed Sriram and told him: ‘“Before you aspire to drive the British from this country you must drive every vestige of violence from your system. . . . You must train yourself to become a hundred percent ‘ahimsa’ soldier’”. Gandhi could easily read what type of a man Sriram was.
So he advised him to leave his materialistic life and accept a spiritual life. Meanwhile Sriram, a pleasure seeking man, was totally changed to a freedom fighter and a follower of Gandhi. As part of propagating Gandhi’s message, especially ‘Quit India’, Sriram came to the village named Solur. He halted before a shop and bought two plantains and a bottle of soda. The shop man told Sriram that he had nice biscuits and asked if he wouldn’t try it. Sriram asked him if the biscuit was English. He replied, ‘“. . . Purely English biscuits which you cannot get for miles around.
In these days no one else can get them. ’ ‘Have you no sense of shame? ’ Sriram asked. Sriram has transformed from a wayward selfish modern materialist to a spokesman of traditional values, swaraj and nationality. In pursuance of Gandhi’s wishes, while Bharati courted arrest, Sriram kept himself out of it and fell a prey to the machinations of a revolutionary terrorist Jagdish. Temporarily he found satisfaction in his job of setting fire to the records in half a dozen law courts, derailing a couple of trains, paralyzing the work in various schools and exploding a crude bomb.
“But he enjoys these bouts only as “a relief in his lonely drab life, isolated from all human association. His revolutionary activities give him a feeling of romantic importance and an image of a character out of an epic” but he feels a loss of direction and “a certain recklessness” about himself. The freedom that he abrogates for himself in disorder as destruction proves him false” Sriram became a violent soldier of freedom. He became a slave of Jagdish who was a follower of Subash Chandra Bose. Jagdish turned the Mempi temple into a fortress.
“Sriram did many destructive works on the request of Jagdish. Soon he understood that by destroying things none could oust the British from India. He felt that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent weapon was superior to the violent weapon. He was arrested under the Defence of India rule” . Sriram needed a prolonged training in understanding and realizing the meaning of love and the wider implications of non-violence in this and the context of freedom. Bharati made him aware of the feminine beauty and Gandhi truth.
The materialist Sriram was converted into a spiritualist and patriot by the effort of Bharati and Gandhi. Sriram’s name recalls that of the great hero of the Indian epic the Ramayana. “While there is some irony here, considering the nature of this particular hero, the detail is significant. The novel could be read as a kind of parable with Sriram as a figure representative of the Indian nation, attracted to the Gandhian teachings but lacking the moral fibre necessary for faithful continued adherence to them”.
In the plot of this book, the transformation of the protagonist due to his meeting and falling in love with Bharati is significant. The path of the protagonist’s progress has been from a state of isolated individualism to a state of involvement with others and issues that transcend the self such as love and nationalism. The novel clearly shows how personal life of people is affected by political events. Sriram and Bharati cannot consummate their relationship until India is independent.
Even the scope of romantic love is severely crippled under British colonialism. Waiting for the Mahatmais a story of progress and growth of the hero Sriram. From a materialist he has grown to a patriot and man of values. “At one level, therefore, Waiting for the Mahatma is a story of progress of young, irresponsible, carefree Sriram into a passionate lover, a responsible citizen of the country with a record of considerable sacrifice and a term in jail to make him a complete patriot”