60 years of RK Narayan’s The Guide: A tale ahead of its time
Sixty years ago, RK Narayan published his remarkable novel, The Guide. The celebrated screen version is known for its unconventional heroine, but she is nowhere as radical as the book’s Rosie; the hero too is more Dev Anand than he is Raju guideUpdated: Oct 28, 2018, 00:03 IST
In her 2014 book-length interview with Waheeda Rehman, the journalist Nasreen Munni Kabir asked the actress which of her characters was closest to her real self. “I think I am most like Rosie,” said Rehman. As every Hindi film fan probably knows, Rehman was referring to the remarkable role she played in the 1965 classic Guide. By the standards of popular Hindi cinema, Rosie was triply unusual: a woman who walks out of an unhappy marriage, begins a romantic relationship with a man who isn’t her husband, and simultaneously embarks on a successful career as a dancer. She would be an unusual Hindi film heroine even today.
But the Rosie who made it to the Hindi film screen was nowhere near as radical as the original Rosie – the Rosie created by RK Narayan, in his novel The Guide, published 60 years ago in 1958.
Narayan was already an established author when he wrote The Guide. It was his thirteenth book and eighth novel. Like all Narayan’s novels, beginning with the delightful Swami and Friends in 1935, it unfolded in Malgudi, the sleepy South Indian town that Narayan had dreamt up as a setting for his fiction. The book’s protagonist, Raju, grows up on the town’s periphery, the son of a small shopkeeper who makes a living selling tobacco, paan and peppermints to peasants and bullock-cart drivers. Then the railway station is built opposite, and Raju’s father gets a shop there. Young Raju stops going to school to run the station shop.
“I began to be called Railway Raju. Perfect strangers, having heard of my name, began to ask for me when their train arrived,” writes Narayan. This is neither an evil man, nor a particularly good one, only a man who accepts the opportunities that come to him. People ask him questions, and he can never bring himself to say, “I don’t know.” His flaws are simply the flip side of his talents. From being the go-to man at the station, it takes but a step to become a guide to the sights – and as Narayan gently suggests, just one more to become a guide to the spirit.
Raju’s childhood and youth don’t appear in the film. Part of the reason lay in popular cinema’s need to be larger than life. All the small town specificity of Malgudi was erased. The station with its “noon train from Madras and the evening one from Trichy”, the crumbling caves with their unstudied rock paintings, the nearby Mempi Hills topped by a glass-fronted bungalow from which wild game could be observed (a location in which much of the book’s romance unfolds) – these were replaced by a tableaux of pan-Indian locations from Udaipur to Elephanta.
But it wasn’t only the locations, the scale and the general tenor that shifted from page to screen. It was the characters themselves. And yet, in his 2007 autobiography, when Anand describes first reading The Guide, he thought Raju so “extraordinary” that he immediately decided this was the story he wanted for his international collaboration.
So what happened? What was so special about Rosie and Raju as Narayan imagined them, and why did they have to change so much on screen? Reading the book, I had an epiphany: Raju’s life encompasses the four normative stages of Hindu life, varnashrama dharma – but in adulterated form. For Raju, brahmacharya, the student stage, unfolds not in school but on the street. He embarks on grihastha, the householder stage, with another man’s wife. His ‘vanaprastha’, the departure to the forest, is forced upon him by prison – and then, by a series of misunderstandings, he finds himself propelled towards moksha, salvation. It is a remarkable structure, of a piece with Narayan’s view of the world: thoughtful, even philosophical, but underpinned by a sense of the human comedy.
Raju and Rosie
Narayan’s character had chutzpah, but he had his awkward moments. But the film was a star vehicle for Dev Anand, and its hero had to be more Dev Anand than Raju. So Anand’s Raju Guide has no self-doubt. He is never worried about the hairiness of his chest. He never wonders if he could be bold enough to woo Rosie. It is in relation to Rosie that he is most transformed – because Rosie herself has changed.
Narayan’s Rosie is no sophisticate, but her ambition is never in doubt. Nor is the carnality of Raju’s interest in her, or her reciprocation of it. The novel has none of the high-mindedness that Hindi cinema forced upon its heroes and heroines, so Raju can tell us the truth: he is attracted to Rosie; his support of her dance begins because it is the clue to her affections.
“I told her at the first opportunity what a great dancer she was and how she fostered our cultural traditions, and it pleased her... Anyone likes to hear flattering sentiments, and more than others, I suppose, dancers.” And later, “Her art and her husband could not find a place in her thoughts at the same time; one drove the other out.”
The book’s Rosie is full of plans; Raju need only support them. But Vijay Anand’s film, keenly aware of his conservative audience, turns his Rosie into a bundle of nerves who tries three times to commit suicide, only to be saved each time by Raju, and berated: “Tumhari haalat aaj yeh isliye hai ki tumne apni haalat se baghaavat karna nahi seekha.”
Yet in order for Waheeda’s Rosie to leave her husband without being judged, the boring archaeologist of Narayan’s book has to become unmitigatedly evil. So the film’s Marco is callous as well as impotent, while also mysteriously managing to frequent sex workers. And even after she leaves Marco, Waheeda is shown studiously maintaining a separate bedroom from Raju. Romance was allowed, but sex could not be suggested until marriage. And despite exhorting women to envisage a life without marriage (“Aadmi ghar nahi basaata toh kya ghar basaane ka koi aur tareeka nahi?” Raju once yells at Rosie), the cinematic Rosie’s first impulse when asked to marry Raju is to offer to give up her growing career.
The other sociological element that makes both book and film fascinating is that Rosie is a devadasi by birth, and her reclaiming of dance in a new secular public form formed a fictional counterpart to the actual national reclaiming of Bharatnatyam. Here, too, the film has Marco insult dance, while Raju delivers a lecture on how artists are no longer bhaands.
At one level, the film externalises what is immanent in the book into explicitly pro-woman and anti-caste messaging. But unlike in the book, its agent has to be Raju. Sixty years after she was created, perhaps it is time for Narayan’s original Rosie to rise from the ashes.
A guide to Guide
Novel by: RK Narayan
Published in: 1958
Made into a film in 1965 by Navketan International.
Guide was made both in Hindi and English.
The English film was directed by TV director Tad Danielewski; the Hindi version was first supposed to be directed by Anand’s elder brother Chetan, but was finally made by his younger brother, Vijay.
The Guide brought RK Narayan a Sahitya Akademi award.