A comparable Indian story also about the early days of Partition is RK Narayan’s dark comedy Lawley Road (1943), the central premise of which is whom a monument should commemorate. In the fictional town of Malgudi, a series of bureaucratic absurdities around colonial symbols illustrate the legacy of colonialism and the confusion and crisis of identity after Independence. The Chairman of the Municipal Council decides to remove the sculpture of Sir Frederick Lawley, “with breeches, wig and white waistcoat and that hard determined look”, from the Lawley Extension, after it has been renamed Gandhi Nagar, even though “people had got so used to it that they never bothered to ask whose it was or even to look up. It was generally used by the birds as a perch.” The twenty-foot statue, “with the firmness of a mountain”, is blasted off its molten lead pedestal “with a few sticks of dynamite.” However, it is soon discovered there had been a mistake: Sir Lawley, whose statue had been uninstalled, had always been a friend to Malgudi, not to be confused with another Sir Lawley, a ruthless tyrant. The government orders the Chairman to reinstate the monument. The effect is tragicomic: the reader is always aware that the squabbles, typical of human nature, are of no consequence against the backdrop of violence and dislocation of Partition, which was occurring at the same time.
First published in 1943 and collected in Lawley Road, Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1969. Now available in Malgudi Days, Penguin Classics
R. K. Narayan’s short stories, simple and unpretentious on the surface and full of touches of gentle and absurd humor, reveal a mastery of literary technique that won him worldwide acclaim, placing him among the very greatest exponents of the form. Malgudi, a fictional town brought to life in a most whimsical and playful manner, is featured in many of Narayan’s novels and stories. Its marketplace provides the setting for ‘An Astrologer’s Day’. A man who has fled his distant village sets up shop at noon daily, duping people with astrological predictions based, as one might expect, on shrewd guesswork and a firm grasp of human psychology. One evening, after the other vendors have switched off their makeshift lighting and are packing up, a stranger shows up in the dark and demands a reading. Striking a match to light his cheroot, the stranger begins his consultation, with the astrologer managing to pinpoint astonishingly accurate details of the stranger’s narrow escape from an attempt on his life. The astrologer reassures the stranger, telling him that the fellow who tried to kill him has died. With the forecast done and money in hand, the astrologer returns home and upon retiring to bed, tells his wife that a great weight has been lifted: for years, he lived with the guilty feeling that he had blood on his hands. Yawning, he then falls asleep, while the reader absorbs the ramifications of his newly revealed relationship to the stranger.
The obvious irony in this classic ‘twist in the tail’ ending is that Fate, into which the astrologer so deceitfully claims insight, is what ultimately helps resolve the protagonists’ problematic relationship. Coming at the end of the astrologer’s day, the story’s dénouement draws the reader back to recap the marketplace setting, where as darkness falls, true insights into human relationships arrive in a flash of illumination. All in all, an 1800-word marvel that Maupassant himself may have endorsed.
First published in 1966. Included in Malgudi Days, Penguin Books, 2006. Available online here