The Painter of Signs
|The Painter of Signs|
First edition (US)
|Author||R. K. Narayan|
|Cover artist||Abner Graboff|
|Publisher||Viking Press (US)
|Preceded by||My Days|
|Followed by||A Tiger for Malgudi|
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (March 2010)|
This bittersweet novel is as fresh and charming today as it was when originally published. Telling the story of Raman, a conscientious sign-painter, who is trying to lead a rational life, the novel is filled with busy neighborhood life and gossip, the alternating rhythms and sounds of the city from morning till night, and the pungent smells and tantalizing flavors of home cooking, as Narayan portrays everyday life in Malgudi. The city is growing and changing, as its inhabitants try to carve out some individual successes within the juggernaut of “progress.”
Raman, a college graduate, brings a sense of professionalism to his sign-painting, taking pride in his calligraphy and trying to create exactly the right sign, artistically, for each client. Living with his aged aunt, a devout, traditional woman whose days are spent running the house and tending to her nephew’s needs and whose evenings are spent at the temple listening to the old stories and praying, Raman prefers a rational approach to life, avoiding the explanations of life’s mysteries which religion provides. As he begins to write his aunt’s biography, which she is dictating, with all its portents and interventions by deities, Raman asks, “How could the Age of Reason be established if people were like this?” For his own life, he believes that “ultimately he can evolve a scheme for doing without money,” and that he can “get away from sex thoughts,” which he believes are “too much everywhere.”
Then he meets Daisy. A young woman devoted to improving the lives of women and the standard of living of the country through strict family planning, Daisy becomes his biggest customer, commissioning signs for all the family planning clinics she helps establish through the city and outlying rural areas. Accompanying her so he can select exactly the right location and style for the signs that are needed in the countryside, he finds himself totally bewitched by this liberated and high-minded young woman. Inevitably, his attraction to Daisy proves more powerful than this desire to avoid the entanglements of marriage.
Narayan is a master of the domestic scene, as he presents the major and minor conflicts of family life through the different points of view of the participants. Respect for his characters and a good-humored (and often humorous) presentation of their issues give warmth to his scenes and allow the reader to feel real empathy with the characters. Raman’s belief in his own rational enlightenment and his simultaneous vulnerability to Daisy’s manipulations provide the author with unlimited opportunities for dramatic irony—Ram’s extreme naivete sets him up for major crises and “learning experiences.” Scenes between Ram and his devout, elderly aunt provide a glimpse of the conflicts between old and new India, in addition to the generational conflicts every family faces between its young and its old. Scenes between Ram and Daisy reflect the changes in the role of women in society, as women become more assertive and liberated.
These reflect the idea that Painter of Signs contains the preoccupation with human character and human relationships. As Raman finds himself being torn between his Aunt and Daisy, the traditional way and the modern way, we see the protagonist as being "in-between" in the town of Malgudi. At the end of the novel, Raman's aunt left for Benares on a pilgrimage and Daisy left the town of Malgudi to pursue her career which means that Raman is left alone in Malgudi. This depicts the fact that it seems as though Raman cannot facilitate either women or what they represent (traditionality and modernity respectively), thus presenting the problematic themes of human character and their relationships with one another.