I was gratified the other day to discover a good collection of R. K. Narayan’s novels at our local library. Among them was The Financial Expert, a story I had been meaning to re-read for some time. This novel’s hero, Margayya, is often acclaimed by critics as Narayan’s most memorable character. Now the novel itself may also prove to be his most prescient — the way it captures today’s economic meltdown in the microcosm of its tragi-comic hero’s rise and fall, it might have hit the shelves this month to win plaudits for its timeliness. Actually, it was published in 1952.
The book’s title is in keeping with Narayan’s other works – The Bachelor of Arts, The Vendor of Sweets, The Guide, The English Teacher, The Painter of Signs — Narayan’s lulling patina through which we are shown the narrow highs and lows of petty bourgeois existence in Malgudi, Narayan’s imaginary South Indian small town. Save for a few passing references, Narayan stayed mostly away from the peasantry in his writings. He gave the proletariat a complete miss, as he did caste. Still, he managed to capture something essential about the Indian lower middle class. In the words of VS Naipaul, Narayan’s novels comprise “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Anyone familiar with India and with Narayan’s works would find in that observation an adequate measure of truth.
The one character that breaks out of this mold is Margayya, “The Financial Expert”. Unlike Narayan’s other protagonists, all drawn from the milieu of a benign South Indian fatalism, Margayya’s is the soul of the stereotypical American go-getter, bursting with energy and ambition, driven to make things happen for himself. An Indian George Jefferson in mentality, one might say, only sans race (or in Margayya’s case, caste).
The novel is not a mystery and I shall be giving nothing away by sharing its storyline. It begins with Margayya as a small-time ‘lobbyist’ in a small town, except that he works on behalf of poor and illiterate peasants seeking loans from the Cooperative Bank, filling out their application forms, advising them on which rules to invoke to garner the largest loan. One day the bank officials throw him out of the bank compound on pain of arrest, and he finds himself out of a job. Down to his last few rupees, a chance encounter with a frustrated author leaves him with a manuscript of a book on sex education. Margayya parleys this into his first million (before discreetly divesting himself of further interest in the book so as not to be tainted by its topic — he has bigger plans for himself). He has now morphed into a financier, offering returns on investment several times the rates provided by the local bank. Though Narayan does not term it so, any American would see his operation as a Ponzi scheme (On second thoughts, post-Madoff, perhaps not!).
Even as Margayya’s stock rises in the world, with all those who insulted him in the past now standing in line to be in his good books, deterioration has set in elsewhere. His son Balu is becoming a wastrel and a vagabond, sustained wholly by his father’s wealth and position. Margayya knows that if the boy ever has to pass a school exam, it is essential that he (Margayya) become chairman of the school board (Narayan writes nothing of the World Bank and the IMF), a position he obtains by suitable donations. Margayya dreams that his wealth would provide Balu the opportunities he himself was denied — a decent opportunity to study engineering and make a good life. However, with his complete preoccupation with making money, he has little time for his son. He bribes the right people, engages the schoolmaster as the boy’s tutor, all to insure that the boy passes his grades. It all comes to nought, for the boy is eventually unable to get through the board exam despite several attempts. Partly out of proclivity and partly out of Margayya’s pampering (he rents the boy a home in a posh neighborhood, pays for all his expenses and provides him a handsome living allowance to boot), Balu develops into and remains a full-time party animal, even after marriage and the birth of a child.
Although Margayya’s rise to financial eminence is sure and swift, the reader is throughout left with a tantalizing dread that there is something unsustainable about the entire edifice — the only question is how it all will unravel. Narayan is no Freudian in other departments, but for the constant presence of the death wish in many of his heroes. Here it finds its expression in Margayya, at the height of his powers, doing something patently suicidal. The pyramid scheme could not have continued forever in any case, but Margayya hastens its end: provoked by his son’s insult, he thrashes Balu’s cavorting buddy for having led his boy astray. In retaliation, that man (incidentally the author who gave him the sex therapy manuscript originally) spreads the rumor that Margayya is out of money. Fear catches, and depositors start lining up, at first in small numbers and sheepishly, to request their funds back. An instinctive psychologist, Margayya responds by tossing their money back at them, with interest and with a stiff upper lip. But when the demand for return of money gradually builds up to a crescendo there is a run on the bank, as it were, and soon Margayya is well and truly insolvent.
The beauty of Margayya’s character is the utter devotion to moneymaking and its attendant mystique. But a Margayya could thrive only when others were actually producing things, using his services as an enabler from time to time. America’s 2008 meltdown arose because everyone wanted to be a Margayya. If Margayya had actually been like George Jefferson and gone in to drycleaning, we (and he) would have been all right. Instead our existence became dominated by too many financial experts, as we made lots of money and quit making very much else. Like Margayya, we turned a blind eye to our own people, to their education, health or other well-being, encouraging them to leave us in peace by providing them cheap funds to go… entertain themselves. They, like Balu, got used to living outside their means. All in all an edifice readymade to teeter. And we, in Margayya fashion, indulged our own death wish by responding to an insult by starting a foreign war or two (to his credit, at least Margayya assaulted the right guy).
In the end, all that is left is the old ancestral home, and a few pots and pans. Shortly Balu returns, kicked out of his posh house, accompanied by wife and toddling son. Margayya was paying his rent too, after all. The Financial Expert ends with the touching scene of Margayya, who had spent his life contemplating the wonders of compound interest, turning to his grandson as he finally realizes where his true wealth lay.
It is this wisdom that appears to have eluded us, even after all that has happened. We still remain stuck in the money-making mindset instead of realizing the meaning of real riches. We have simultaneously become living parodies and literal embodiments of what Naipaul wrote of Malgudi — small men, big talk, small schemes (large scams, though).
And limited means, too, more limited by the day.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.