Book review: The Painter of Signs

[Maybe it’s the lack of topics, thoughts or a simply sedentary lifestyle, but I seem to be turning to book reviews a lot these days. Or maybe am just reading a lot more. I hope it doesn’t become a comfort zone for the blog, ending up as a catalogue of books I read with what I thought of them! But I guess it’s any day better than reminiscing on life at all kinds of anniversaries!]

Books are a sort of journey. Into the world created by the author with the time/era part of the setting. Be it Burma and Malaysia in ‘The Glass Palace’ or Dickensian England in Copperfield, we venture out and into that world and come back, hopefully, with an altered perspective of things. In the same metaphor ‘home’ for me, would be R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi. Sometimes I wonder if I can lump in Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle or the world of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves into it. But the ‘connect’ to those is somehow missing.

In a way Malgudi is the closest we can have to our childhoods in the literary world. A world where a ‘Chettiar’ shopkeeper believes in not answering in negatives to anything you ask of him, even if he doesn’t have it, or is not likely to deal in. Postmen, cab drivers, printing press owners, school teachers, people who sit around and talk in shops about Government policies, Grandmoms, schools, vacations, temple festivals, cousins and the whole lot! Yes, as each of these characters become real, like Nataraj of the printing press in ‘The Man-eater of Malgudi’, the association with a role we know might waver, but it only ends up creating a connection with a friend or relative whom we know better.
The Painter of Signs

The Painter of Signs started off with a similar connection to a signs painting shop on 1st Main, Chamarajpet right opposite where the longest road we knew – 3rd Cross aka Bazaar Street which becomes Bull temple road after Uma talkies- starts. In an era where the whole world was compressed into Chamarajpet, where every relative and friend had an address with pincode 560018, Gopi Arts was seen on all streets, a ubiquitous signature under all boards for shops, all paintings on walls, be it for Family planning or a shop advertising everything it sold on its walls.

PoS is easily one of the best works of RKN. Using his trademark style of humour, he binds you into one perspective and relates the story of one man’s obsession with a woman and their complicated relationship. Like many other RKN stories, this one deals with human emotions and their interplay seen from one perspective, which is what endears his works. This time however, he does not desist from raising the tone a notch or two. Apart from the two characters, the painter’s aunt forms a significant character, something he (and thus we) realizes well into the end.

At the very end he leaves you with a feeling similar to that of Orhan Pamuk‘s Snow, as you realize how weak the main character seems to be, and how he seems helpless in forcing anything around stronger characters around him. Like in Snow, towards the end you just know what is going to happen and the ending just is made into something inevitable. Like in snow, you are left wondering if it’s just because we see too much of that one perspective, through that character’s frailties and insecurities that we are able to sit in judgement easily, to mete out what we feel he/she may deserve.

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3 thoughts on “Book review: The Painter of Signs

  1. I had a copy of this and The Man-Eater of Malgudi at home which I gave to the Raj sometime in 2002. IIRC he has still not returned it 😀

    Those 2 along with Swami and Friends are the only fictional works by RKN that I have read. It has been too long since I read them, need to read sometime. It is surprising how I do not remember the stories, but the landmarks of the town remain visually etched in my memory, especially from the Man-Eater which covers a lot of Malgudi and its surroundings.

    1. As much as I’d wish, The Raj does not visit this blog anymore. If he does, I can assure you he’ll only deny any such lendings and borrowings. 🙂

      Definitely worth reading them now. Can appreciate them better.

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