An Astrologer and mailman in Malgudi
You know you’ve been to too many book-reads and launches when you can predict what’s going to happen at one with alarming regularity: there is a guest and there is the audience; one speaks about the greatness of the author in question, the other nods in comprehension, and after a few passages from a text and minutes of strained formality it is over and done with. It’s the author’s style and fame that decide, to a great extent, the success or downfall of such sessions. Not to mention the style of presentation.
I’ll admit that my first thought was: another book-read on R K N? Gods. But 29th January saw a departure from the usual: yes, it was a programme organized by the Madras Book Club as a tribute to the legend who was R K Narayan in his centenary year – but it was, to use a cliche, a performance with a difference.
Two of the great writer’s short stories were presented, that evening: “The Mailman,” and “An Astrologer’s Day.” Both are clever, wryly written commentaries on two characters that were the mainstay (and still are, to a certain extent) of the Southern Indian social scenario.
Shobha Hebbar came up with a short introduction about R K Narayan. This was followed by a small reading of the story – except that the reading was actually acted out, with an all-women team playing the leads. “The Mailman” was directed by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, and three ladies acted out the parts between themselves – announcing, beforehand, that this was strictly a reading enactment, and one shouldn’t expect the precision and class of actors.
They needn’t have worried: the accents and the parts played out perfectly (I was a little apprehensive, I will admit about how a “read” might be done.). Padmini Natarajan as the mailman, with all the right intonations and drawling speech easily stole the show as she paraded on the stage in an authentic mailman costume. As the ever-interfering, but rather soft-hearted mailman who pokes his nose into all the villagers’ affairs and eventually arranges a girl’s marriage, she won the most applause, and set the stage for a most enjoyable evening.
The next play/read, “An Astrologer’s Day”, was even more intricately planned with almost all the characters dressed for the part, representing the villagers, and a busy market place. An over-dressed actress flutters through the gaping throng; a school-teacher wanders around the vegetable carts. Loiterers crowd around the market-place, and there sits the astrologer in a corner, draped in a beard looking thoughtful with his few standard phrases handed out to every customer of his (“You are going through a difficult period …” etc). He is also shrewd enough to extract all he can before he doles out his “prediction.” In the end, he receives a customer who is far more different and frightening than the rest … and what happens next is revealed at the end of the story. Read it. It might look a little tame by today’s standards … by R K N is to be relished for his style, rather than anything else.
The players took a bow and there was much appreciative applause. Perhaps because I did not expect such a performance, it was all the more pleasanter.