The Stories In My Life: Raja Rao's Narsiga, an impish shepherd, imagines Gandhi in the mould of Rama

  • The protagonist of this story is an impish little shepherd child named Narsiga, whose imagination combines the return of Rama to Ayodhya with the release of Gandhi from jail

  • Narsiga is an orphan who has been adopted by a wandering virago who works at the home of the liberal landlord of the village

  • There is a fine-spun sublimity in this elemental story, innocence with deep thought, refreshing laughter with immense, endearing charm

There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.

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Since it has been Gandhi-time all over the world and Dussehra-time too with Hindus both resident and expatriate, the story I have chosen this month very interestingly combines both Gandhi and Lord Rama in a wonderful creative feat by Raja Rao. It is about an impish little shepherd child named Narsiga. It appeared in the Bombay magazine Horizon in 1944 and later in Raja Rao’s first collection The Cow Of The Barricades in 1947. Many stories, novels, plays, poems and films centre round Gandhi’s persona, but this little story remains my favourite and always among my top three.

Narsiga is an orphan who has been adopted by a wandering virago, who picks up first this abandoned child and subsequently a husband ‘from among the widower pariahs’ of a village and settles down as a maid-servant in the village’s Big House, the home of the liberal landlord of the village who also runs an ashram devoted to Gandhian principles and practice in his house. Her job is to make the fire and heat the bath water for the residents, scour vessels, sweep floors and mind the Master’s baby. But she loves her drop of toddy and she loves her noisy quarrels of an evening when she swoops down on Narsiga and roughs him up. But Narsiga is no pathetic victim. He knows how to tease and provoke her, how to bawl louder than he needs to so as to attract the attention of the masters of the Big House, who not only fly to his rescue but pamper him as well. For Narsiga is a special favourite with the Big House, we learn as the story unfolds. The Master, a devout Gandhian, teaches the villagers to spin and to practice satyagrah and how to resist the mighty British empire by Gandhian soul-force. Narsiga sits in at these discourses and he is particularly struck by the mention of a Divine Mother. There are songs and poems dedicated to this Mother that Narsiga is taught. In his imagination the Mother is ‘a huge, big goddess, sitting on a swan like the one in the picture by the sanctum door, a huge light behind her head, a conch in one hand and a wheel in another and a tamed lion at her feet. She held rice in one hand and a lotus in the other….’ But the poems and songs always end with the words ‘Mataram, Mataram, Vande Mataram’, words which bring tears to Narsiga’s eyes as he lisps them under his breath.

 The Stories In My Life: Raja Raos Narsiga, an impish shepherd, imagines Gandhi in the mould of Rama

Raja Rao's story about Narsiga has the scent of forest and field, the touch of earth and water, and the vibration of a certain kind of truth

Narsiga is a creative liar and even makes a big sport out of the beatings he gets. He is wily and full of fun. He takes his Master’s sheep out to graze and also manages to find a paying job for himself by taking the sheep and goats of a few others of the village for a fee. He spends his days frolicking with his sheep, riding them, chasing away wild dogs, inhabiting a vibrant alternate world of the imagination, fabricating tall stories about huge snakes in the jungle and huge dogs who ate sheep, teasing his little friend Rami, the scavenger’s child on whom he is a little soft, and generally having a boisterous and enjoyable childhood. But he also sits quietly with the older and more serious disciples of the Master and listens to the preachings of a faraway saintly being called Gandhi.

The teachings about telling the truth and not being violent don’t quite register, but the ringing nobility of tone does and Narsiga gets the general idea – that the Red Man has imprisoned the Mother and the Saint, and the Red Man is one of those who come wearing big hats and trying to shoot the deer, and Narsiga has some personal experience of the Red Man too. For once he has even tried mimicking the sound of the deer and tricked the dogs of the Red Man and been beaten for it, a fact he gleefully treasures. He personally enjoys pelting stones at passing trains because he suspects that the Red Man is in the carriages. But the Saint who is his own Master’s guru has declared that the Red Man is not to be hated even when every effort must be put in to free the Mother who is languishing in jail. In fact what Narsiga has gathered is that the Red Man has put the Saint in prison too, and everyone is waiting for his release.

Then comes a day when there is rejoicing in the Big House. News has arrived that the Mahatma has been released from jail. Celebrations are afoot, flags are distributed , a meeting is called where the Master is to speak to the villagers. And Narsiga’s flamboyant imagination runs wild as he races through the narrow lanes of the village shouting the glad tidings: ‘The Mahatma is going in the air, with his wife Sita, and in a flower-chariot drawn by sixteen steeds, each one more beautiful than the other. And they will fly through the air and the heavens will let fall a rain of flowers. The Mahatma will have the Mother on his right, and our Master at his foot, and they will go across the clouds and the stars….’ In his volatile, vivacious imagination Saint Gandhi is Rama returning victorious to Ayodhya in all the legendary splendor which his overflowing fantasy can hold, and beside him are Mother India and also Lady Sita! The story ends with the magical words: ‘The air was light, and the night was falling. But, Lord, what a lot of stars!’

There is a fine-spun sublimity in this elemental story, innocence with deep thought, refreshing laughter with immense, endearing charm. The scent of forest and field, the touch of earth and water, and the vibration of a certain kind of truth.

Updated Date: Oct 21, 2019 10:18:10 IST