This is neither a literary criticism nor a learned analysis of this classic novel. It is a reader’s fond recollection of his life-long association with this wonderful work of fiction. It is a personal attempt to define my fascination with the story and attachment to the eponymous protagonist.
I think I came across this novel for the first time when I was 8 years old. I found it in one of the bookshelves at home – it was a rather old copy – the front cover and a few pages were missing. However, the name of the novel was printed on each page – Narayanarao. It had a nice ring to it. It was very close to my own name of which I was very fond and proud. I read a few pages. I quickly noticed that all his friends addressed him as Narayana – just what my friends and family called me. I felt instantly closer to him. A couple of pages into it, there was a full description of Narayanarao – tall, handsome, strong, with long thick jet-black hair, and very popular among friends – just what I wanted to be! I was hooked.
I don’t think I’ve read the whole novel at that time. The book was there at home. It was not going anywhere. I had more urgent things to do, yet I kept going back to it. Like all boys of that age, tales of magic and adventure held more appeal for me than fiction with social themes. (This is true even now – we bought two copies of each Harry Potter novel; one for my daughter and one for me). However, this novel continued to fascinate me – it was a fairy tale in its own way. It took me to a magical time and place, populated by noble, beautiful, artistic, eccentric and utterly fascinating characters. I fell in love with the book. Once my mother caught me with the book and scolded me – what was I doing, meddling with adult’s books? But, when she saw that it was Narayanarao, she thought it was okay and left me to my reading. I continued to read it and re-read it all the time I was growing up. And I still read a few pages occasionally – at least once a month – especially if I am feeling down. I have two copies at my home. In case somebody wants to borrow, I’d still have one for myself.
The story and the structure
The basic story is not very complicated. Narayanarao is the younger son of a large rich land-owner Brahmin family from Konaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. He has been studying law in Chennai. The Zamindar of Visvalapuram notices him on a railway platform and decides that he is the most suitable groom for his younger daughter, Sharada. The marriage takes place. Sharada’s mother does not like this match with a commoner family and tries her best to poison Sharada’s mind against Narayanarao. However, Naraynarao bears this tragedy with forbearance believing that Sharada would one day love him. Sharada comes of age and goes to live with her husband in Chennai as he sets up his law practice. Over a couple of years, Sharada slowly comes to realize Narayanarao’s multi-faceted greatness and begins to love him. The novel concludes with their union in an utterly cute and romantic scene.
That does not mean that the novel is simple. There is a multitude of characters. There are plots and sub plots. There are histories of families, regions and dynasties. There are heated debates about politics. There are passionate discussions about literature, music and art. Narayanarao’s younger brother-in-law goes off to America to pursue scientific studies – so we follow him now and then. One of Narayanarao’s friends goes off on a free love adventure – we follow him too. There is the family of four beautiful sisters – we keep checking on what’s going on with them. We take a peek into the lives of farm laborers and we look in on the unbridled debauchery of a feudal young lord. We make the acquaintance of the Anglo-Indian community, and we get to know the women folk of Narayana’s household. The final product is rich in texture, colorful in characterization and pulsing with life.
With all the sub plots and so many characters, the author establishes Narayanarao in the center of reader’s attention very firmly right from the beginning. Narayanarao’s attractive physique and his personal magnetism (Bapiraju frequently compares him to the legendary hero Arjuna) are described in loving detail – almost as lovingly as the ancient poet Valmiki describes his hero, Rama. Narayanarao excels in everything he tries – he is first in studies, he is a competent athlete in several sports, good at playing the violin in Carnatic style (This is how he first impresses the heroine), and he is an accomplished poet and painter too. He is a staunch Gandhian with passionate nationalistic fervor – wears only khadi clothes, yet he is also cool headed and logical.