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R.K. Narayan’s Protagonist Dodu (1930)

And his current paradeshi reincarnations

by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 21, 2010

Narayan had also mentioned that, ‘A story may have its origin in a personal experience or a bit of observation or a conversation overheard.’ That the Dodu story is quasi-autobiographical also has been revealed subsequently. The protagonist of the story, carrying the “real name ‘Dodu’ at home and ‘Lakshmana’ at school” has turned out to be none other than Narayan’s youngest brother and R.K.Laxman (b.1924).

Introduction

I was saddened by the news that India’s preeminent 86-year old cartoonist R.K. Laxman was admitted to a Mumbai hospital on June 20th evening, after suffering from three mini-strokes between Thursday (June 17) and Sunday (June 20) in Pune [vide, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com, accessed June 21, 2010.]

For decades, I have been a fan of Laxman and his elder brother Rasipuram Krishnaswami (R.K.) Narayan (1906-2001) – the creator of Malgudi, which in his words blossomed into the quintessential developing town of 20th century India. I fell in love with Narayan’s Malgudi sketches, short stories, novels and his memoirs. Reading his Malgudi descriptions do not fail to bring back memories of my childhood days. Eelam readers could sense that Narayan’s Malgudi even extended into the Eelam territory. My own Malgudi was Thachchadampan, a sleepy village on the trunk road between Mankulam and Mullaitivu in the Vanni region. While living in the farm of my maternal grandpa Arumugam Thiyagarajah and grandma Thangamma, I had one year schooling at the Olumadu Maha Vidyalayam in 1959.

Among my favorite short stories by master story tellers, Dodu of Narayan ranks along with the Gooseberries [Kryzhovnik] of Chekhov, The Diamond Necklace of Guy de Maupassant and The Gift of the Magi of O. Henry. It is somewhat interesting that like The Diamond Necklace and The Gift of the Magi stories, Narayan’s Dodu story also has petty cash as its central theme. Thus, this vignette consists of two components. First, I explain its background and relevance to the scribblings of contemporary adult journalist reincarnations who cash in on the Eelam scene. Secondly, I provide the text of Narayan’s short story Dodu, for the benefit of those who have yet to read this masterpiece.

A Few Facts and Thoughts on the Dodu Story

What is delightful in this short story is that, after reading it, many can regurgitate their own nostalgic childhood phase and touch a chord with Dodu of their own deeds of how they schemed to earn ‘money’ by hook or crook. Narayan wrote this short story in 1934 for a competition, when he was a budding author of 28, and was awarded the prize (250 Indian rupees) by the Merry magazine. But the timelessness of the story is a garland to Narayan’s skill as a story teller.

In his Introduction to the story collection – written in 1984 – Narayan had stated poignantly, “A writer does not gernminate, grow and decay in the manner of a piece of vegetation. The conception seems to me irrelevant; a writer’s output over the years cannot be studied as bio-historical material. A writer’s early stories need not be worse than his later ones, and his so-called middle period may exhibit a dull competence rather than genius. I have faith in datelessness. A date-stamp may be necessary for a periodical, but not for a story.”

Not only Narayan’s Dodu is dateless, but also borderless. Change the name Dodu to Mike or Raul or Kwame or Taro, the central theme would fit well to the eight-year olds of other cultures. But Narayan being a Tamilian, he also obligingly has inserted a few Hindu cultural markers as signatures to the story. These include ‘good stock of Chinese crackers for the coming Deepavali’, ‘Pests-Man getting up a coconut tree’ and ‘historical document written on palmyra leaf’.

Narayan had also mentioned that, ‘A story may have its origin in a personal experience or a bit of observation or a conversation overheard.’ That the Dodu story is quasi-autobiographical also has been revealed subsequently. The protagonist of the story, carrying the “real name ‘Dodu’ at home and ‘Lakshmana’ at school” has turned out to be none other than Narayan’s youngest brother and R.K.Laxman (b.1924). An 18-year age difference existed between Narayan and Laxman. Thus, the brother of Dodu (in the short story) who makes a brief appearance could very well be Narayan himself. Though Narayan began the story by telling that ‘Dodu was eight years old’, in reality when he wrote the story in 1934, his youngest brother Laxman was aged ten. The minor character of father (in the short story) also acutely resembles the behavioral traits of the real father of Narayan and Laxman –Mr.R.V. Krishnaswami Iyer (~1870-  ), who was an authority figure of the large Tamil Brahmin household, holding the post of headmaster of the local school.

In 1999, cartoonist Laxman had reminisced in his autobiography about his household as follows: “Narayan had written another story inspired by my activity. It was called ‘Dodu the Money Maker’. It was about a little fellow who badly needed money to by peanuts. This story won him an award in a literary competition sponsored by a magazine in Madras.” This magazine was published by latter-day movie mogul Subramaniam Srinivasan (1903-1969) aka ‘Gemini’ S.S.Vasan. In part 1 of Narayan’s biography, penned by Susan Ram and N. Ram, the Dodu story’s background receives almost three pages of treatment, including some comments about it, made by Laxman. The cartoonist had stated to Narayan’s biographers that, upto the point in the story where he ‘sold’ stamps to his family members at a mark-up price was factual. But, fiction begins when a noisy neighbor enters to purchase stamps from him and complains about his mark up price to his father.

Dodu story is blessed with youthful Narayan’s keen insight and meticulous craftsmanship in weaving a simple and elegant story which can hardly date, even after 75 years. For me, even though Narayan wouldn’t have intended, his Dodu story is fascinating as a metaphorical satire on contemporary ‘running’ Johns and ‘running’ Janes who pass through Eelam territory, gathering morsels from local translators, interpreters, human rights barkers and ‘Intelligence’ gumshoes to file their ‘eye witness reports’ to the news media. These are the paradeshi (foreign) Dodus and swadeshi (native, but currently living in diaspora) Dodus.

Alex Perry (Time’s Africa bureau chief)

Paradeshi Dodus fall into two types. The first type is the linguistically and culturally challenged hacks who work for few years as the New Delhi Bureau chiefs of New York Times or Time or Economist magazines and peddle their ‘expertise’ on Hinduism, caste rivalry and untouchables from secondary or tertiary sources. Time magazine’s recent South Asia bureau chiefs (Alex Perry, currently its Africa bureau chief, and Jyoti Thottam) belong to this category. The second type of paradeshi Dodus, originating from India (like B. Muralidhar Reddy of the House of Hindu publishers), though proficient in language and culture are mentally challenged weaklings who have to sponge on the power holders for access and news bites. 

If paradeshi (foreign) journalists are the adult Dodus, Narayan’s short story also has an an equivalent of swadeshi (native) Dodu journalists. Rajan Hoole and D.B.S.Jeyaraj are typical examples of this type. They are represented by the ‘Pests-Man’ in the story. In Narayan’s dialogue:

‘Can I also earn?’ Dodu asked.

‘Certainly, why not?’ replied the Pests-Man.

Jt

Jyoti Thottam (Time’s South Asia bureau chief) 

The ‘Pests-man’ in the story is a coconut-tree climber. In the by-gone days, before newspaper journalism planted its roots in the Indian subcontinent, the ‘Pests-man’ – though a service provider – belonged to a low caste in the Brahmin’s world-view of Hindu society. Thus, he was not permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the house. Though Narayan belonged to a Brahmin household by birth, he was diplomatic enough not to tag the specific caste name to the ‘Pests-man’ in his story.

Narayan continues the story, “He [the Pests-Man] pulled out a few tender leaves and threw them down. Dodu picked up one. It was so attractive, long, tender, and pale. He casually scratched the pale surface with his thumb-nail. It made a mark, a clear mark, which turned red. He picked up another and wrote his name on it…

And, for the journalist Dodus – the service providers – the Eelam story continues to be a fountain to fill their pockets. If cryptoracist ignorance is the weapon of choice for paradeshi Dodus, obscurantist piffle appears to be the weapon of choice of swadeshi Dodus. Whereas the ignorance and folly of Narayan’s eight year old Dodu brings a chuckle to the readers, the ignorance and folly of adult paradeshi and swadeshi Dodus could only elicit a sigh of scorn.

The complete text of Dodu (1930) short story

Dodu was eight years old and wanted money badly. Since he was only eight, nobody took his financial worries seriously. (He wanted money for many things – from getting a good stock of Chinese crackers for the coming Deepavali to buying a fancy pen-holder which his master at school was forcing on everybody at the point of the cane.) Dodu had no illusions about the generosity of his elders. They were notoriously deaf to requests. They jingled with coins when they moved about. And yet they were astonishingly niggardly. No elder would part with a single coin if he could help it.

Dodu’s office was his dealwood box with the lid open. He had his office hours between any hour and any other hour of the day, just as it suited his fancy. When he wanted to do a bit of serious thinking, he would open the lid and squat in his box amidst its contents. And certainly the contents were not so fragile as to be crushed by the weight of their owner. All the discarded things of the household found their way into this box. Every evening Dodu would make a circuit round the house to gather ‘things’, as he vaguely called them. The waste-paper basket in his father’s room gave him a steady supply of attractive book jackets, brown wrapping paper, large envelopes, charming catalogues, and pieces of brown thread. From under the window of his big brother, he picked up yellow packets of Gold Flake cigarettes, shining cigarette-foils, razor blades, cardboard boxes. When his sister was not at home, he opened her box and appropriated bits of coloured thread.

Thus day by day the contents of his box increased. At the end of every week it overflowed, though it was the biggest box in the house. When it overflowed so much as to choke the space between its back and the wall and laid a trail across to the coat stand nearby, his father took notice. Dodu dreaded these periodic notice-takings of his father, which would always end in his emptying the box into the adjoining conservancy lane. The moment his father’s back was turned, Dodu would run round to the conservancy lance and pick out the things that he couldn’t really afford to throw away. For a whole hour he would remain broken-hearted. But mails were arriving every day for his father, and his sister was always buying coloured thread, and his brother was a confirmed smoker.

Dodu sat in his box and wondered what he could do for money. He wondered if he could try again a piece of business he had undertaken once before. His uncle from Madras had given him a rupee. Dodu had gone straight to the post office and bought twelve brown stamps, four green stamps, and four postcards. He then wrote in his scraggy hand a placard in Kannada, STAMPS FOR SALE, and hung it outside the window of his room, which opened on a side street. His chief customers were his elders at home (except his father), and they helped him to dispose of his postal commodities with a rapidity that astonished Dodu himself. He sold his goods with a profit of three pies over each item. People bought readily. Only one card was left in the end, and a neighbour came to buy it, and when Dodu quoted his price, he seemed outraged. He behaved like a madman and swore that he would report the matter to the police. Dodu was frightened. But all the same, he had enough courage left to ask what interest he should have in selling stamps and cards if it were not for the slight profit he got. And finally he parted with the last card for nothing in order to earn the goodwill of this noisy customer. The end was that Dodu’s dream of investing over and over again his rupee and spending the profit just as he pleased was shattered. He not only did not realize any profit but lost his capital as well. He could not point to any particular hole through which his capital had leaked out. It had just diffused and faded away. The elders bought on credit and put off paying him. They seemed to be suffering from a chronic lack of ‘change’. Dodu soon forgot all about the business and remained so until one afternoon someone walked into the house and demanded ten half-anna stamps and sixteen postcards. Father ordered the customer to go his way and he answered back that he certainly would have but for the announcement outside the window. Father tore the placard down, stamped on it, and shouted at Dodu. Dodu had forgotten to remove the STAMPS FOR SALE placard even after he had definitely closed down his business. That was the end of his business venture.

Now, sitting in his box, he was unconsciously summing up the lessons of his past experience. Lesson number one was that he could not expect help or sympathy from his elders. Lesson number two: if his uncle should give him a rupee again, it was not to be wasted on foolish schemes. Buying and selling stamps was a silly idea. The buying side of it was probably all right. As for selling, it did not come within the definition of the term. It was more giving away for nothing.

Looking out the window, he saw a man getting up a coconut tree. It was the Pests-Man. Dodu jumped out of his box and walked up to the coconut tree.

‘Hi!’ he cried, looking up. ‘How much do you earn every day?’

‘About two rupees!’ replied the man from the treetop.

‘Two rupees! Then you must be making a good lot of money! Don’t you ever feel that you have too much of it?’ asked Dodu.

The Pests-Man laughed and said something about wife and children at home. To Dodu this sum appeared immense: What could he not buy with all that money? Chinese crackers piled up and up to the very sky, and whole boxes full of sweets and pencils.

‘Can I also earn?’ Dodu asked.

‘Certainly, why not?’ replied the Pests-Man.

But what a huge thing a coconut tree was! One found the two rupees on its top. How did one climb it?

‘Here, coconut-man,’ he cried. ‘Can that pest be found anywhere nearer?’

‘No,’ replied the coconut-man, ‘it hides only on the top of the tree, and eats into the sap. I pluck it out and throw it down thus. And they pay me three annas per tree.’ He pulled out a few tender leaves and threw them down. Dodu picked up one. It was so attractive, long, tender, and pale. He casually scratched the pale surface with his thumb-nail. It made a mark, a clear mark, which turned red. He picked up another and wrote his name on it. It was equally wonderful. An idea struck him. He remembered an incident his brother had related to his mother. One of his brother’s friends took a palmyra leaf with writings on it to some library and was paid for it. There was obviously money in it.

The next morning he dropped a casual inquiry and made his brother repeat the whole incident. His brother said that the Director of Archeology, Dr.Iyengar, bought from someone a historical document written on palmyra leaf, for the Mysore Oriental Library. Dodu was very attentive when the library’s name, whereabouts, and the Director’s name were mentioned.

That afternoon he found his way to the library. His mind was already feasting on visions of a bumper Deepavali with no end of crackers. The yellow building with its big dome awed him. He doubted if he would be allowed to enter it. Outside a door a peon, with his right knee drawn up, was dozing. Dodu informed him in a respectful tone: ‘I have come to see the master of this office on a very important business.’ The peon did not care. He was far too sleepy.

Dodu entered the building and felt terribly small. Everything looked powerful and big. All round there were stone images and stone slabs with a lot of writings on them. Many pundits wrapped in gaudy shawls were poring over long palm-scrips. Things were so imposing that Dodu almost decided to run out. He could hear the beats of his own heart reverberating through the long silent hall. However he took courage in both hands and stood at an immense table, on the other side of which a mighty man wearing a turban and spectacles was sitting.

‘Sir,’ Dodu called in a respectful whisper, lowering his voice to the point of silence. The mighty man did not hear.

‘Sir,’ Dodu repeated. This time, as if to compensate, his voice was indecently loud. And Dodu felt awkward.

The mighty man startled at the noise and looked for the source of that ‘Sir’, but could not locate it.

‘Are you a doctor?’ the voice asked. The mighty man was puzzled by the disembodied voice. He searched with his eyes and found a clump of black hair level with the top of his table. He pushed back his chair and rose. He was surprised to see an urchin, wearing dirty coat and shorts, standing at the other end of the table. He was accustomed to receiving only dignified scholars and students as visitors.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.

‘I have come to see a doctor,’ replied Dodu. ‘Are you a doctor?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

Dodu climbed a chair and stood on it.

‘If you are a doctor,’ Dodu said, ‘I have something interesting for you. I hear that you give a lot of money for palm leaves with writings on them. I hear that you pay a hundred rupees for such things.’ He pulled out of his pocket a few leaves crumpled into a ball and gave them to the doctor.

This was a refreshing change for the doctor from his serious work. He examined with keen delight the scrips. On one he found the figures of a jug, a nose, a horse, and the name ‘Dodu’ in Kannada. On another leaf he found these interesting statements in Kannada: ‘The cow is a very tame animal. This is Rama’s book.’ All these were copied from an old Kannada primer. The third bore on it in English: ‘Cot. Ox. Fig. Pear. Baby. AAAABCFG’

The doctor found no difficulty in deciphering the inscriptions. He had succeeded with far more difficult ones carved on stones and copper-plates by kings who lived hundreds of years ago. Dodu’s handwriting – big, gawky, and irregular as it was – was, comparatively, a specimen of fine, recent calligraphy.

When he finished, he paused and then burst into a hearty laugh.

Dodu was offended. He said (to himself) that the doctor had no business to laugh at him. If he did not want the palm leaves he might quietly give them back. Dodu would go and try to sell them to some other doctor. But he did not express anything aloud.

‘Who told you that I give money for these things?’ the doctor asked.

Dodu repeated what he had heard from his brother. The doctor’s face was bright with amusement. ‘You are a very nice boy,’ he said: ‘you have brought just the thing I wanted. I will buy it.’

He took the palm leaves and gave Dodu all the copper coins he had in his pocket. He had about four annas. Four annas in copper look immense. Dodu received the money with delight.

‘Whose son are you?’ asked the doctor. Dodu preferred not to answer. This transaction was a secret. ‘I don’t know’, he replied innocently. ‘My father goes to some office.’

‘What is your name?’ asked the doctor.

Dodu paused and answered, ‘Ramaswami’. That was also a lie. His real name was ‘Dodu’ at home and ‘Lakshmana’ at school.

‘Well Ramaswami,’ said the doctor, ‘can you go home safely? Always walk on the footpath. There are too many motor cars on the roads.’

Dodu sat before an old woman who was selling edibles, and filled his pockets with fried groundnuts for three pies. He looked idly at the cows grazing in the green fields opposite, under the bright sun, and felt very happy and contented.

Consulted Sources

R.K.Laxman: The Tunnel of Time – An Autobiography, Penguin Books, 1999.

R.K.Narayan: Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1987, pp. 61-66.

Susan Ram and N. Ram: R.K. Narayan – The Early Years, 1906-1945. Viking Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1996.