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C Densingh
R.K. Narayans The Martyrs Corner is an interesting short story
set in the imaginary locale called Malgudi the telltale signs of which
are easily noticeable. Though the existence of the place is purely
fictional, his critics have not left him alone. There have been
innumerable attempts to find out its exact location. The University of
Chicago came out with a map of India pinpointing the precise location
of Malgudi. It is to be understood that Malgudi on the Sarayu is a
mere imaginary locale just like Hardys Wessex. The difference is that
it is basically an Indian town sharing some common characteristics.
Towns like Tirunelveli on the Tambravarni, Madurai on the Vaigai and
Tiruchirapalli on the Cauvery do look like Malgudi and very well could
be the model for Malgudi. Narayan himself has said: If I explain that
Malgudi is a small town in South India, I shall only be expressing the
half-truth for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.
Like the place itself which is universal, Rama, the protagonist
of the story, also represents the common man who is put to untold
sufferings because of the faulty administrative set up in which he is
The story of Rama is related with unmatched finesse. Narayan
is primarily a storyteller and nothing matters to him more than the
story itself. He is quite unlike most Indian novelists who have their
own political and moral stances. Narayan writes with no explicit
moral intentions and this makes him stand different.
In spite of primarily being a novelist of great repute, Narayan
seems to have a special liking for the short story. This becomes clear
when he says: "I enjoy writing a short story. Unlike the novel, which
emerges from relevant, minutely worked out detail. The short story
can be brought into existence through a mere suggestion of detail,
the focus being kept on a central idea or climax.
His story, which is quite simple, runs like this: Rama is a
roadside vendor of foodstuffs. He sells his wares in a makeshift shop
on the Market Road every day. The place where Rama does his
business is strategically located. There is a steady inflow of
customers who like Rama for his apparent genial attitude and the
dead cheap foodstuff he sells. He is a typical businessman who is on
friendly terms with everyone. Rama has a peaceful life unperturbed
by anything. This could have continued in this way for ever and ever.
Ramas job is not an easy one, as one might imagine, as Rama
has to put up with the jealous remarks of the passers-by, deal with
his favoured customers who are basically boorish and ward off the

danger coming in the form of the health officer and the traffic
constable by giving them an occasional packet of his stuff as bribe.
Life goes on well for Rama until a political riot breaks out on the
spot where he has his business.
The police open fire and many people die in the firing. Rama's
spot is turned into a Martyr's comer as a monument is to be put up in
memory of a so-called political leader who has fallen dead in the
police firing. Rama is left a mute spectator to all the events unfolding
around him.
He is forced to set up his shop on a farther spot that does not
have the vantage point his former place used to have. When he
brings the unsold stuff the next day, his fast-dwindling customers
desert him. That night Rama is able to return only with two annas in
his bag. He decides to wind up his business and lead a life of
When his savings are used up, he goes to one Restaurant
Kohinoor seeking a job there. He gets the job of a waiter which
requires much tact and patience. When some rude customers treat
him domineeringly, he asks them to speak to him gently.
The easy-paced narrative remains unaffected by the authorial
observations, which are full of humour, irony, good-humoured banter
and sarcasm. Narayan calls Rama's shop an 'establishment' which is
in reality a makeshift arrangement that exists for a mere two hours
every evening. When he arrives at his spot carrying innumerable
articles, he looks like someone having four arms. This ironically
suggests the god-like status of Rama who has the supreme control of
roadside business. He is a prince among caterers and the man who
does business on his spot before his arrival is only a Pretender to the
Rama feels like asking a stingy customer, who is getting his
boots polished, to pay an anna more to the boot polish boy. But this
apparent good gesture is only motivated by business considerations.
Rama is not even ready to part with an additional drop of coffee to
the poor boot polish boys.
The health department people, entrusted with the task of
ensuring that only clean and germ-free articles are sold for
consumption, accept Ramas unclean stuff for their own use. Politics,
the normalizing factor, divides people along party lines. The arrival of
the police, the custodians of law, adds another side to fight. The
cinemagoers get the shock of their life when they find reel life
infringing upon real life. The man who is made a martyr is a mere
hooligan. Party workers turn the corner, which helps an individual
earn his livelihood, into a convenient place for collecting money. The
loss of Ramas place of business is followed by the loss of his

business. The former pretender to the throne becomes the real

winner. It is Rama who falls from eminence into virtual oblivion.
The place where Rama used to conduct a profitable business is
soon cordoned off by the sympathizers of the slain leader and the
whole area is always abuzz with activities. Money is collected in
boxes to install a memorial stone on the spot. An ornamental fencing
runs around the stone entirely transforming the spot.
Rama can no longer go to the corner that has always been his
own. With the loss of the spot, Rama loses his mooring. The new
place is not as good as the new one. The cinema crowd goes away
from him. The jutka drivers find it inconvenient to have their
mouthfuls leaving their vehicles on the roadside for a moment.
There is no end to Ramas miseries. His business begins to go
downhill. He carries less food than usual and that too remains unsold.
He eats some of his unsold stuff at home and the rest, at his wife's
advice, brings them for sale again next day after warming them up.
This gives rise to the rumour that Rama's quality is not what it used
to be. One night he is able to return home only with two annas in his
bag. He decides to wind up his business once for all.
For some days he lives a life of retirement. Soon all his savings
are used up. One day he goes to one Restaurant Kohinoor seeking
employment. He becomes a waiter there for twenty rupees a month.
Loudspeakers in full blare all day, it is indeed a tiresome job to wait
at the tables for eight hours a day. But he has to stick on to his job.
Sometimes, rude customers order him about. On such occasions,
Rama asks them to speak to him gently reminding them that he was
once a hotel owner himself. This piece of reminiscence gives him
immense satisfaction. Rama, the proud hotel owner of the past,
becomes a server at Restaurant Kohinoor.
There is a touch of pathos when we find Rama doggedly waiting
eight hours a day at the tables for twenty rupees a month. It is also
heart rending to note Rama responding to a rude customer thus:
"Gently, brother I was once a hotel owner myself.
The story The Martyrs Corner teaches us an important moral
lesson. Mindless mobs supported by political leaders and their parties
should leave the poor people alone. They should never be a nuisance
to them. The poor like Rama earn their living through honest means.
Rama is made to suffer for no fault of his own. The word martyr
which is used ironically also refers to the sorry plight of Rama.
Some find it to their distaste that Narayan's short stories read
like translations interspersed with transliterations and literal
conversions of Indian idioms into English thus making the insinuation
that his writings are not adapted to the tastes of the Western readers.

But this allegation is unfounded as Narayan has the Indian readers in

mind when he writes his short stories.
Narayans prime concern is to hit out at the rotten system and
the corrupt practices of fellow Indians that eat into the body of a
great nation called India. Rama gets up when the cock in the
neighbouring house crows which hints at the chronic tardiness that
affects Indians in general. Like most Indians, Rama is also
magnanimous but his magnanimity never materializes into any useful
and positive action. He dislikes serving women as his fellow Indians
do. Rama is no worse than the indifferent municipal administration.
The preference of the Indian people to follow the herd is made
apparent from the way people fight each other for no rhyme or
The comer where Rama had his business could have been left
alone. When a political thug dies in police firing he becomes a martyr.
The spot becomes the martyr's comer, where a monument is to be
erected. Keeping an eye on the elections round the corner, the
municipality hands over the corner to a group of people.
Politics is a good business in India as evident from the way
austere, serious looking persons mill around the corner speaking
seriously among them.
There is tragedy at the end but it is not as enormous as the
Greek variety that leaves one stunned and stupefied. Events at the
mundane level in the Indian context lead to no tragedy.
Narayan's vision is in line with the Indian worldview that all
human relationships are nothing but illusions and worldly human
failings never stoop to tragedy.
There is indeed a crisis in Rama's life but he remains unscathed
learning in the process to live with it.
1. Malgudi Days. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1986, originally
2. A Horse and Two Goats. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications,
1982. First published in New York: Viking, 1970.
3. My Dateless Diary: Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1969.
4. Gods, Demons and Others (tales from ancient Indian epics).
Delhi: Hind, 1979. First published in London: Heinemann, 1965.