Dr Raman Kumar/R. K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs: A Study in the Dialectic of Being and Becoming

Dr. Raman Kumar, Assistant Professor of English,

Govt. College Bangana, Distt. Una (Himachal Pradesh)


Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (1906-2001) popularly known as R. K. Narayan, an award winning novelist, essayist and storywriter is generally considered one of the greatest Indians writing in English. He shares this honour with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. But R. K. Narayan enjoys a place of rare distinction among these great writers too and it is partly because of the rare setting of his novels, his close association with the traditional Indian society, his simple language, his humour and irony, and his characterization, which is so varied and colourful. Many critics have praised R. K. Narayan for his literariness and for his aestheticism. V. Y. Kantak has observed, “…when we come to weigh Indian writing of fiction in English to date, Narayan with his penny whistle seems to have wrought more than most others with their highly pretentious and obstreperous brass” (21). R. K. Narayan has fourteen novels to his credit alongwith a large number of short stories. Narayan’s The Guide (1958) won him great fame and it was widely acknowledged as a masterpiece by the world’s literary community. It also won him the much-coveted Sahitya Akademi Award in 1960. Another novel which is considered one of his much acclaimed works is his The Painter of Signs (1976).

What makes The Painter of Signs so distinct is its characterization. The characters of both Raman and Daisy are so unique and peculiar that they leave an indelible impression on the minds of the readers. Though these characters are very lifelike and ordinary as they seem to be found at every nook and corner of the Indian society, but they have something very unique and peculiar about them. Now what is so extraordinary about them? The answer is that this uniqueness and peculiarity lies in the dialectic of their being and their becoming. It is the dialectic of being and becoming which gives them their peculiar nature and temperament and makes them so memorable.

Though the term ‘Dialectic’ owes its origin to ancient western philosophy (Greek philosophy), but its roots can be traced in eastern philosophy as well. The principles of dialectic were followed in ancient times in both western thought and eastern philosophy (Indian spiritual concepts). The concept of dialectic is based on two basic principles: First, everything (whether living or non-living) is in a continual state of change and second, this change comes because of the opposite or contradictory nature of things. So according to the philosophy of dialectic, everything is made of certain opposite things and the conflict of such opposite things results in the change or transformation of that particular entity. Even the modern psychoanalytical critics believe that one’s self, his/her personality is made of opposite things and these opposite aspects bring about some change in him or her.

The terms Being and Becoming are used both in spiritual manner (as in Indian philosophy) and in existential way (as in western thought). According to the Indian spiritualistic philosophy, being is the innermost part of one’s self, one’s true self. It is the Atma with which all living beings are born into this born. This being is purely selfless and is devoid of all worldliness. William Wordsworth’s glorification of the earliest childhood in his famous “Immortality Ode” is nothing else, but affirmation of his faith in that pure being with which all humans are born. Wordsworth has talked of this pure being in the following terms:

Mighty prophet! Seer blest!

On whom those truths do rest,

Which we are toiling all our lives to find. (511)

Even the western philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau have said a great deal about such a pure being and have warned against the harmful effects of becoming which corrupts and deforms one’s being. Becoming stands for one’s existence in society, one’s worldliness which gradually swallows one’s innocence and selflessness. This happens when one moves ahead on the earthly journey called life and starts learning the tricks of this materialistic world, but in this process loses contact with his/her true being. With every single step on the path of becoming a social participant, an individual moves away from his being and loses contact with it. The only way to escape from the disastrous and soul-destroying effects of becoming, as suggested by Rousseau, is to “Return to Nature”, which means returning to the natural simplicity of being.

So, Being is the natural self of an individual, whereas Becoming is his attempt to adjust himself in the social set-up and the resultant involvement in the worldly materialistic or carnal pleasures of life. The character of every human being living in society is characterized and determined by that particular point between the extremes of being and becoming at which the pendulum of his/her personality rests at that particular point in his life. The dialectical tension or conflict takes place when a human being living in society tries to grow by learning and getting exposed to the social milieu in order to acquire the skills required to play the roles in society in accordance with the social norms and demands. While trying to fulfill the demands which the society makes on his personality he may become a normative member of society, perfectly adjusting himself to the social roles he is expected to play. But his complete identification with his social roles without any sanction from his real being, the inner centripetal, leads to an alienation from his own-self, resulting in a schism in his personality. Eventually, one part of his self leads him to one direction, while the other part pulls him into some opposite direction. Because of these pulls and pressures and complexity of inner forces, man remains in a state of fix. He behaves in an unpredictable manner and the pendulum of his life wavers between the two poles of spiritualism and sensuality, asceticism and carnality. At one time, he touches the pinnacles of glory and spiritualism and at the other he falls into the bottomless pits of sensuality and carnality.

  1. K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs can be seen and interpreted in the light of the above-mentioned theory. All the main characters of R. K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs result from the dialectical conflict of being and becoming. The character of Raman, the protagonist of the novel, is a study in the oddities and eccentricities of human behaviour. Along with being an eccentric character, he also turns out to be a social deviant because of his antisocial behaviour and immoral deeds. Raman, as C. P. Sharma observes, is “one of Narayan’s rootless intellectuals whose unconventional aspirations, sooner or later, inevitably result in failure of worldly life, frustration and despondency, giving rise to the inner tensions and conflicts” (136).

Raman in the novel is a painter by profession who paints and makes signboards for his customers. He claims to be an intellectual rationalist, but lacks the conviction and commitment of a genuine rationalist. He boasts that he is not in favour of sex and marriage because he believes that marriage is the least required of things. “He wished to establish that the man-woman relationship was not inevitable and that there were other more important things to do in life than marrying” (45). He does not want to marry and repeat “this blunder committed by human beings since Adam” (45). But such an attitude and behaviour of him is quite unnatural and hypocritical and lacks any real conviction of self.

The hypocrisy and shallowness of his philosophy is exposed when he comes in contact with a woman while bathing on the bank of the river Sarayu, which flows behind his house. He sees her water-soaked thighs beneath the edge of her tucked up sari and this view keeps haunting his mind all the time. His mind is engrossed with the thought of that woman and he finds it difficult to keep his mind away from her thought. He falls in a deep reverie centered around the sight of the woman with fair thighs. Though he criticizes himself for indulging in all this day-dreaming, but fails to tame his mind. As is narrated:

He wanted to get away from sex thoughts, minimize their importance, just as he wished to reduce the importance of money. Money and sex, he reflected, obsessive thoughts, too much everywhere- literature, magazines, drama, or cinema deal with nothing but sex all the time, but the female figure, water-soaked is enchanting. (14)

Raman is a neurotic and is full of contradictory aspects and feelings. He poses to be an ascetic who is far off the sexual desires in life, but feels unable to control his fantasies when he gets a chance. He deceives his own-self by feeling lustful to see the woman knee-deep in water washing clothes. He resolves to discipline himself against sex and other obsessive thoughts and makes it his principle, “Just my principle, and disciplining my mind against sex- obsessive sex” (16). But even such a resolution of him fails to bear any fruit.

Thus, he suppresses his inner desires and biological urges unconsciously and this suppression results in a split or schism in his personality. He, as a result of this split, cherishes contradictory views and is full of self-criticism. He cherishes some ideas at one time and questions and doubts their very relevance at the other time. In absence of any conviction, his ideas appear shallow, and his behaviour has an element of oddity and eccentricity in it. He is full of enquiry about his own ideas and views. This is how the novelist portrays his contradictory ideas:

Must not make a fool of myself, he thought, a fellow whose outlook is to place sex in its place. To pursue a female after seeing only the upper half, above the desk- she might be one-legged, after all. But this is not sex which is driving me, but a normal curiosity about another person, that’s all. (33)

Raman is so full of dichotomies that he can’t remain resolute. Though, he believes himself to be a man of resolution who has renounced all thoughts of sex and marriage, but his fort of this pretended asceticism crumbles down at the very first sight of the fairer sex.

His asceticism and rationalism is further put to test and is shaken out of its wit in his encounter with Daisy, a female health worker. The sight of Daisy makes him restless and all his claims of bachelorhood and chastity in thoughts and feelings prove hollow. Her lovely appearance unhinges his cold rationality and he feels irresistibly attracted towards her. Her charms hold him in a powerful grip and he remains lost in erotic thoughts all the time. He himself realizes of this state of him, “He was going through a series of moments of indecision. Never had he been in such a predicament. He wished he had not embarked on this adventure” (34). Though he criticizes himself for being too curious to meet her, but the next moment he again wishes to do it. So, he becomes a split personality like the hero of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, who too is a divided personality and is always full of self-criticism and self-denial.

He feels irresistibly attracted towards Daisy, the zealous health worker, at the very first sight when she comes to him for the making of some banner. He is so moved by his instincts that he starts inventing excuses to meet her. Though there is nothing strange in a man feeling attracted towards a woman, but what is odd about him is that first he craves to meet Daisy, but after his meeting with her he criticizes himself for his too much keenness and attraction towards her. Before meeting her, he prepares night and day for it. “He had prepared for this visit with utmost care. Kept awake half the night thinking of it; roused himself from dreams relevant and irrelevant to his mood, and dressed himself with care…” (35). But after the meeting, he scolds himself and admits,

I am sex obsessed, that’s all, to admit the plain fact. The first exposure to a sari-clad figure (Daisy), and I drop everything and run after it. What excuse could I have for knocking on the door of a woman living by herself? (39)

Raman is a psychopath and fails to exist peacefully in any state. He has certain complexes in his psyche because of which he finds faults with everything, including his own-self. He comes up to the mark when seen in the light of Jung’s concept of neurosis because he too, like Jung’s neurotics, unconsciously projects the weaknesses of his character upon others. His superficial persona refuses to accept his own inclination towards sex and woman; rather he considers it an act of gods to break into his fort of asceticism and dissolve his vow of celibacy. But he decides to save himself from this conspiracy of gods by all means.

He had determined to give sex its place, and somehow the gods didn’t seem to like it. Having written signboards for so many years, it was rather strange that he should be presented with a female customer now, and that it should prove troublesome. He was going to shield himself against this temptation. Mahatma Gandhi had advised one of his followers in a similar situation, “Walk with your eyes fixed on your toes during the day, and on the stars at night”. (40)

Raman feels that the gods are, perhaps, conspiring against him to spoil his asceticism through Daisy, just as the heavenly maidens (the apsaras) used to do in ancient times with sages. So he considers himself no less than a sage whose vow of celibacy and austerity is perhaps inviting the ire of gods and they have planned to dissolve it through Daisy:

Our puranas were full of instances of saints falling in the presence of beauty. The gods grew jealous of austere men and maneuvered to disturb their rigours, and their purpose; their agency was always a woman of beauty. Now the same situation was presenting itself in the garb of a Daisy. (40)

Actually, Raman feels obsessed with the thought of Daisy and half heartedly wants himself set free of her reminiscences. “He told himself, I must get over this obsession. Till yesterday I was a free man with my mind unfettered. Today I am unable to think of any other subject” (44). The charm of Daisy seems to be breaking into his stronghold of restraint and self-discipline. Before the beauty of Daisy “an edifice of self-discipline laboriously raised (by Raman) in a lifetime seemed to be crumbling down” (45). It appears that he had built a fort round his own-self against all the girls of the world, but now that fort appears to be crumbling down and being broken into by the appearance of Daisy. He finds himself “on the verge of defeat” (45), but this defeat is not in the external sense of the word, it is an inner defeat, received by him from his own unconscious self. He criticizes himself for such defeat or failure,

I am in bad shape, he told himself, sitting up in bed. I am a victim of some shock, and must get over it if I am not to make a fool of myself in this world. Finish her work completely and forget her, finish the transaction without raising my gaze to her. (46)

Raman feels divided within himself- one part of his self tells him to leave everything that is associated with Daisy, but the other part pulls him into opposite direction. Though he makes great resolution not to feel attracted towards female beauty, but all his efforts to set himself free of her temptation end in smoke, and he can not help feeling irresistibly attracted towards her.

Raman gets a chance to accompany Daisy to a health campaign and their long companionship and proximity, and her aloofness helps him to win her. On their way back, they are stranded on the road and they have to spend the night under the open sky. The romantic night, their solitariness and his own suppressed voluptuous desire whip his passions up and in this fit of passion, he runs towards her, finding her all alone in the darkness of night in a bullock-cart. He rushes towards her like a wild beast, his only aim being to seize his prey, whatever the consequences may be. He behaves like this because he believes that “women like an aggressive lover” (92). His whole being now convulses with waves of desire and comes under the complete control of his animalistic instincts. This is how the novelist portrays his animal instinct and his evil desire to grab her,

He should run up and seize her and declare his love to her and beg her to leave the villagers alone and try to change the whole course of her life, or else become a true missionary himself for her sake. (64)

He tries to achieve her forcibly, but Daisy manages to escape from his hold and spends the night on the branch of a tree. Thus, he behaves like a wild beast which does not care for anything else; his only concern being to satisfy his animalistic urges. In the pursuit of his evil desire, he puts everything else at stake, but later feels afraid of being imprisoned and pestered for his immoral act.

After a fortnight, the tables are turned and their love-hate relationship matures into amorous one. Daisy comes out of her feeling of indifference and frigidness with her essential feminine charms and gets involved with Raman. Raman manages to copulate with Daisy and makes it his routine affair. He, because of his frequent visits to her, becomes quite conspicuous amongst the people of Malgudi. He becomes the laughing stock of the town. Even his aunt, who has brought him up like her own son after the death of his parents, feels sick of his actions and decides to leave him. She feels ashamed of his involvement with Daisy and has to avoid the other women of the town for the fear of being taunted by them. But Raman has no regard for her sense and sensibility because the mirror of his mind is misted by the image of Daisy and he has lost consideration of all pros and cons of life. He does not find anything wrong in his behaviour and is even ready to leave Malgudi, which he considers as a “conservative town unused to modern life” (146). When his aunt finds it difficult to cope with him and decides to leave him, this is how he reacts to her decision,

No use worrying about her (aunt). Let her be where she pleases. I have done nothing to hurt. I am only trying to shape my life, and I can’t really help it if she is going to worry about irrelevant details such as Daisy’s religion and such things. (148)

Though he himself feels reminiscent of his aunt and misses her care, but he is not ready to shun the company of Daisy. He feels divided between his regard for his aunt and his infatuation for Daisy. This is how he forms bridges in the praise of Daisy before his aunt and glorifies her mission,

She is a rare type of girl, devoted to the service of people, and that is all her religion. I don’t know if she cares for any other god or religion, and I haven’t asked. Her worship takes the form of service to the poor and the ignorant and helping them live a decent life. She cares not for wealth or luxury or titles. She can live with the poorest in their huts, eat their food, and sleep on the mud floor. (153)

He tries to justify his decision to marry Daisy by this entire glorification, but his aunt does not agree with him and goes away to a pilgrimage.

Later in the novel also Raman feels divided as Daisy refuses to marry him as per traditional rites. She is ready to marry him as per Gandharva vivah, which believes that “When two souls met in harmony the marriage was consummated perfectly, and no further rite or ceremony was called for” (158). Raman finds it difficult to make her agree to live with him under the same roof. He feels pained to know that Daisy is not ready to give birth to a child and bring it up. She wants to keep herself free for her mission to serve others. Raman wonders:

What sort of a married life is this going to turn out to be? Separate lives and separate everything! Only the roof was to be common, and perhaps the bed- even of that he was not certain how long. She might want to lock herself in her room and forbid him to enter. Should he write a NO ADMISSION sign and present it to her as a wedding gift? (172)

Though such an awkward behaviour of Daisy hurts him a lot, but even then he hopes to manage the things anyhow. But at last, Daisy moves on with her mission of population control and leaves Raman to his fate for good.

Thus, Raman in the novel is an odd and eccentric character and it results from the dialectic of being and becoming. This dialectic results in his split personality as he believes in the things, but without having any real conviction in them. Though he boasts himself to be a rational person, but does not give way to rationality at any point in his life. He claims to have no desire for marriage or sex, but immediately falls a victim to the charms of Daisy, proving all his beliefs to be false and shallow. He seems to be at war against his own-self. His unconscious desires and prohibitions do not allow him to rest even for a while in the novel. He remains divided throughout the novel- first between his instincts and his ideals and then between his love for Daisy and his regard for his aunt and at last is left all alone. He is so full of dichotomies that he always finds himself in a state of fix and confusion like Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The character of Daisy, the heroine of the novel, can also be seen the light of dialectical conflict of being and becoming. While going through the process of being and becoming, both Raman and Daisy are moved away by their own ambitions and instincts and are unable to act according to the accepted code of social conduct. They get degenerated as a result and behave in an immoral manner. The novel as C. P. Sharma observes, “highlights the degeneration of modern man as an inevitable result of decline of faith in the cherished ideals, established institutions and sacred values” (143). Because of their degeneration and immoral behaviour they, as S.P. Bhardwaj finds, “are a little way off from the normal class of beings” (173).

Daisy is a family planning zealot of Malgudi and acts abnormally. She has a great desire to establish her own identity and in its pursuit she runs away from her home in her very childhood and is later found somewhere near a sea in a hut by her parents. She acts in an anti-social manner right from her childhood. She feels her identity lost in the din and clamour of her household which consisted of fifteen children and numerous elders living the most unarranged life in that ‘madhouse’. She could not establish her identity in that house as “all individuality was lost in this mass existence” (130).

Daisy represents the women of post-independence era who were zealous to establish their individual identity and in this attempt of them they went against the traditional norms and established institutions of society. She herself admits in the course of the novel, “Long ago I broke away from the routine of a woman’s life. There are millions of women who go through it happily. I am not one of them” (159). Daisy does not like to be inspected by a prospective bridegroom who has come to her house with a marriage proposal, and behaves in a very rude way. By such an attitude she is held responsible for spoiling the image of her family and ruining the future prospects of her other sisters. But, she feels fed up of such a life, “I never dreamt there could be any other kind of life, any other interest in life, any other way of living. I had no idea that it could be changed…” (130). To get rid of such a life, she runs away from her home and becomes a missionary who is devoted to the social cause. Later in life, she becomes a campaigner of family planning and has no personal life. But such an attitude of her gradually turns her out into a social deviant having no regard for the cultural and moral values of society.

Daisy’s involvement in the programmes of family planning makes her envious of children. She is against children and considers them burden on society. Raman feels afraid of such an attitude of her and observes, “Thank God, she is only concerned with births and not death. Otherwise she’ll be pestering Yama (The God of Death) to take away more people each day…” (69). Though Daisy works with a mission to save ‘mother earth’ from the extra burden of excessive population, but her mission makes her an extremist who feels envious even of children and marriage. Such an attitude of Daisy is quite abnormal and lacks any real conviction. This is what Raman feels of her attitude towards children,

… she was not really a lover of children and viewed them perhaps as symbols of defeat for her cause. She never patted a child or tried any baby talk. She looked at them as if to say, you had no business to arrive – you lengthen the queues, that’s all. (60)

Raman is shocked to see her bullying the people for having large families and a great number of children. He wondered:

What a lot of policing she was doing! Raman thought. She must really be mad! She will fight and shun people who bring up large families. Some madness must have got into her head quite early in life and stayed on there. (67)

Daisy does not have faith in the established social institutions like marriage and family. She is against marriage as the monotony and drudgery of married life does not suit her. Marriage and other social bonds are all meaningless for her. For her sex, whether within marriage or outside marriage, is just a biological phenomenon having no spiritual or social significance. For her there is “nothing extraordinary for a man and a woman beginning to live under the same roof even without being married” (168). She adopts a mechanical approach towards life and starts copulating with Raman without getting married. For her sex is a mechanical process, having no emotional and social value, and this attitude of her reminds us of the mechanical approach of the Typist Girl towards love and sex in T. S. Eliot’s modern epic, The Waste Land which too portrays people’s faithlessness in the established social values and institutions.

Daisy is not interested in marriage with Raman as she does not believe in it. She feels that marriage and other such social bonds will curtail her freedom and will make her lose her individuality. The two conditions she has laid down before Raman for marriage are- First they will not have any child and second if by chance one is born she will give the child away and keep herself free to pursue her social work. She refuses to marry Raman as per Vedic rites and decides to come to his house to live on any of the convenient days. “We will begin to live under the same roof on any day we decide” (158), she tells Raman and he wonders, “What sort of a married life is this going to turn out to be?” (172) This is how she justifies her decision to start living together without getting married, “When two souls met in harmony the marriage was consummated perfectly, and no further rite or ceremony was called for” (158).

Somehow, the married life or the life of a husband and wife terrifies her. Though she wants to enjoy all the pleasures of a married life, she wishes to escape from its responsibilities. That is why she refuses to come with Raman to his house. She does all those things which are not sanctioned by the social setup and which are unethical. Her entire attitude is that of deviation from the patterns of social behaviour and model code of conduct. For her marriage means the end of one’s individual freedom and she refuses to receive such a willing slavery. As she tells Raman, “Married life is not for me. I have thought it over. It frightens me. I am not cut out for the life you imagine. I can’t live except alone. It won’t work” (179).

Daisy is also a social deviant of her own type. This is how she justifies her decision and refutes her earlier promises made to Raman, “At some moments, and moods, we say and do things- like talking in sleep, but when you awake, you realize your folly… Oh, forgive me for misleading you…” (180). She does not pay any heed to the pleas and concerns of Raman and goes away from him by saying merely this, “I have a different life chalked out” (181). At the end of the novel, she leaves Raman behind and walks on her own way.

Thus, Daisy moves away from the social, moral and spiritual patterns of behaviour and becomes a “do what you will” character in the course of her life. She has no faith in the spiritual and moral values of social institutions and roles. She has a great desire to establish her own identity which eventually blurs her vision and erodes her sense of judgement. She follows her own individual aspirations and personal desires and goes away from her moral and spiritual being. She loses her faith in the social customs and institutions and refuses to get tied in the bond of marriage with Raman. She represents those modern young women “for whom the cult of independent individuality is the supreme value in life” (Walsh171). Thus, the dialectical tension fails to bring any transformation in her. Rather, it brings split in her personality and the deviation resulting from this split and disintegration.


Works Cited


Bhardwaj, S. P. “The Painter of Signs- An Analysis.” Perspectives on R. K. Narayan.  Ed. Atma Ram. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1981. 165-176. Print.

Kantak, V. Y. “R.K. Narayan’s Fiction: A Poser to Criticism.” R. K. Narayan: An Anthology of

Recent Criticism. Ed. C. N. Srinath. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2000. 21-35. Print.

Narayan, R. K. The Painter of Signs. 1976. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1993. Print.

Sharma, C. P. The Novels of R. K. Narayan: A Perspective. New Delhi: Prasangik

Publishers, 2007. Print.

Walsh, Williams. “Narayan’s Maturity.” R.K. Narayan: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. Ed.

C.N. Srinath. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2000. 148-172. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The

New Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Carendon Press, 1972. 508-513. Print.





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