That there are several parallels between R.K. Narayan's novel The Guide (1958) and his short story "Selvi" (1982) is no secret, and I found many results (too many to sift through) that discuss them.

A runthrough of the relevant parts of the storylines; superficial and brief, recounted in a manner intended to highlight the similarities:

  • In The Guide, one of the plot-strands is the relationship between Raju and Rosie. In the book, Raju falls in love with the beautiful Rosie, once a dancing girl, and 'rescues' her from her cold, emotionless husband. He recognizes her talent as a Bharatanatyam dancer and gradually builds up her image, career, and prestige. Eventually, however, he begins to drain Rosie's spirit as he pursues personal glory and riches; she feels like a monkey performing for crowds. Her indications that she is tiring of his meddling and control are brushed away by his declaration that he does it out of his love for her and passion for her art.

  • In "Selvi," the eponymous heroine Selvi is a classical singer who rises to fame through the careful planning of a man, Mohan. Mohan squeezes the joy out of singing, reducing her to an "automaton" as he curates her performances and squashes her creativity. He is a stifling presence who dictates every raag sung and outfit worn by the woman to whom he thinks he's doing a great favor. Though we are only given that "mere suggestion of detail" which Narayan ascribes as a feature of the genre of the short story, we do have some indication of how the two characters meet, and how Mohan begins to gradually take over Selvi's affairs.

Yet over the story's dozen or so pages, we see a dynamic strikingly similar to the one in The Guide: Extraordinarily talented woman → Man propels woman to glory → Man begins to bask in reflected glory → Man grows controlling → Man appreciates neither the art nor the artist → Woman breaks free → Man realizes that the talent speaks for itself. I actually read "Selvi" when I was younger, and read The Guide only yesterday, but the similarities are apparent even when read in reverse order.

(Obviously, these synopses ignore the various subtleties at play.)

The parallels are manifest, and I have three lines of questioning regarding them:

  • Has Narayan acknowledged or discussed the similarities? Is "Selvi" intended as a re-examination of those themes in The Guide? What was the genesis of the story? What did he wish (or what might he have wished) to accomplish with it?
  • What was the contemporary critical reception of "Selvi," particularly surrounding its resemblance to The Guide? Did the reviewers dismiss it as derivative of the other subplot? Was it even noted? (It was published as part of a larger collection, so may have been drowned out by the others.)
  • According to the academics and to analyses, to what extent is "Selvi" actually a rewriting of The Guide? In what ways is it new, and in what ways is it simply The Guide decontextualized? How does it add to the original exploration of art, pandering, and hanger-on-ing?

This might need more focus, but I think that separating each of these into separate questions would be tedious (for everyone) and unnecessary. Ideally, they are related enough to be woven into a single answer.

1 Answer 1


"Selvi" (1982) is generally acknowledged to be a fictional retelling of the marriage of M S Subbulakshmi and her husband T Sadasivan. The control Mohan has over every aspect of Selvi's performances is akin to that Sadasivan had over Subbulakshmi's. R K Narayan was among the élite few that Sadasivan allowed inside Subbulakshmi's inner circle, and she considered Narayan a family friend. In a 2015 article, Subbulakshmi's great-niece Gowri Ramnarayan reports:

When I asked Narayan why he made Selvi leave husband Mohan and return to her mother's people, something that he knew very well that Subbulakshmi the traditional, devoted wife would have never dreamed of, he answered, with a charming, wicked smile, "I thought, let her be free and happy in my story, if not in her life." But would [Subbulakshmi] have been happy with such freedom, I persisted. "I like to imagine she would," he chuckled.

Ramnarayan, Gowri. "Looking at MS Subbulakshmi through the eyes of RK Narayan." DNA. Updated 27 November 2015. Accessed at https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/editorial-looking-at-ms-subbulakshmi-through-the-eyes-of-rk-narayan-2149474 9 January 2024.

That Narayan was wrong about Subbulakshmi's attitude is demonstrated by the fact that after Sadasivan's death in 1997, Subbulakshmi gave up performing altogether. In this, Subbulakshmi is unlike not only Selvi, who performs gratis at her mother's home every evening after leaving Mohan, but also Rosie, who shows herself to be enterprising enough to manage her own phenomenally successful career after Raju is imprisoned.

Certainly anyone who comes to "Selvi" after reading The Guide (or vice-versa) will be struck by their similarities. Critical studies of "Selvi" are hard to find. The only detailed study of the story I have found is by Alessandro Vescovi, who does remark on the similarities:

The story line is simple and it closely recalls part of the plot of Narayan's most renowned novel, The Guide.

Vescovi, Alessandro. "R.K. Narayan's «Selvi» as a Reflection upon the Feminine Self." ACME — Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell'Università degli Studi di Milano, vol. 64 issue 1, January–April 2011: 231–236, p. 232. Accessed at https://www.academia.edu/56504249/R_K_Narayans_Selvi_as_a_reflection_upon_the_feminine_self 9 January 2024.

Yet as Vescovi points out, the short story has notable differences from the novel published 24 years earlier:

starting from the very title, in The Guide the protagonist is Raju, the man, whereas in «Selvi» the main character is the woman; The Guide is told partly by an omniscient narrator, partly by Raju himself; «Selvi» on the contrary is the story of a woman, told by a semi-omniscient narrator with an internal focalization shifting from Mohan, Selvi’s husband, to Varma, a representative of Selvi’s fans.

ibid., p. 234

To Vescovi's list can be added another major difference between the two works: the social context within which the classical arts are performed and received. The differences between Rosie's story and Selvi's show the changing status of the classical arts and of women performers over the course of the twentieth century. This involved a destigmatization and sacralization of both the performers and the arts themselves.

In pre-Independence India, the performing arts were associated with courtesanship. Women from respectable families did not train as singers or dancers, much less perform in public. Both Rosie and Selvi come from families where women were courtesans, but each heroine is differently situated vis-à-vis this traditional profession. This difference spills over into their respective marriages as well. And through these differences, Narayan depicts the changed conditions of performance and reception that govern and characterize the relationship each protagonist has to her art.

Rosie's mother does not want her to follow the family tradition. She therefore makes sure that Rosie gets an education. A university degree marks both Rosie's distance from her family vocation, and her eligibility as a suitable bride for Marco:

"A different life was planned for me by my mother. She put me to school early in life; I studied well. I took my master's degree in economics. But after college, the question was whether I should become a dancer or do something else. One day I saw in our paper an advertisement—the usual kind you may have seen: 'Wanted: an educated, good-looking girl to marry a rich bachelor of academic interests. No caste restrictions; good looks and university degree essential.' I asked myself, 'Have I looks?'"

"Oh, who could doubt it?"

"I had myself photographed clutching the scroll of the university citation in one hand, and sent it to the advertiser. Well, we met, he examined me and my certificate, we went to a registrar and got married."

Narayan, R. K. The Guide. 1958. Intro. Michael Gorra. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. p. 65.

Initially, Rosie believes that "if it was necessary to give up our traditional art, it was worth the sacrifice" (loc. cit.). But she soon finds that she cannot after all accept a respectable life as Marco's wife at that price. Raju cannily uses Rosie's desire to dance to drive a wedge between her and Marco. The resultant adulterous affair enables Rosie's life as a performer. As such, Rosie's phenomenal success is orthogonal to marital respectability.

Her very lack of respectability is part of Rosie's draw. As an embittered Raju notes, the public spectacle of his arrest, trial, and conviction adds to the allure of her performances:

There was no dearth of engagements. In fact, my present plight, after a temporary lull, seemed to create an extra interest. After all, people wanted to enjoy a show, and how could they care what happened to me?

ibid., p. 176.

Marked by scandal, Rosie's identity as an adulteress seems tied to her identity as a dancer. Her art brings her success, but that success is presented in commercial terms. Her master's degree in economics comes in handy, but not in the way originally planned. She finds that she is able to manage her own career, pay off all the debts Raju has accumulated, and become phenomenally successful without needing to rely on anything other than her talent and acumen. But as far as respectability goes, she ends up not very far removed from her courtesan origins. Rosie begins by complaining that women of her background "are viewed as public women" (p. 64); her ultimate success means that "her name became public property" (p. 143).

Selvi's situation presents a contrast. Unlike Rosie, she is not well educated. She is trained only as a singer. She carries on the family vocation and shows no desire for any other pursuit. Her art sustains her to the point of indifference to everything else:

In any setting—mansion or Five Star Hotel with luxurious guest rooms and attendants, or a small-town or village home with no special facilities or privacy—she looked equally indifferent or contented; washed, dressed, and was ready for the concert at the appointed time in the evening. Most days she never knew or questioned where she was to sing or what fee they were getting. Whenever he said, "Pack and get ready," she filled a trunk with her clothes, toiletry and tonic pills, and was ready, not even questioning where they were going. She sat in a reserved seat in the train when she was asked to do so, and was ready to leave when Mohan warned her they would have to get off at the next stop. She was undemanding, uninquiring, uncomplaining. She seemed to exist without noticing anything or anyone, rapt in some secret melody or thought of her own.

Narayan, R. K. "Selvi." 1982. Malgudi Days. Intro. Jhumpa Lahiri. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. pp. 170–180. Quotation is from pp. 174–175.

Selvi's success as a performer is almost entirely the result of Mohan's adept management of her career. Mohan has been involved in the freedom struggle: "He had been a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and spent several years in prison, wore only cloth spun by hand and shunned all luxury" (p. 170). Selvi has come to his notice because her mother has brought her to his studio to be photographed for a school magazine after she has won a singing competition. He insinuates himself into their life, and eventually begins passing himself off as Selvi's husband. Whether they are actually married is open to question:

Day after day, he performed little services for the family, and then gradually took over the management of their affairs. At the Boardless, no one could relate with certainty at what point exactly he began to refer to Selvi as his wife or where, when or how they were married. No one would dare investigate it too closely now.

ibid., p. 174.

Selvi's artistic acheivement makes her so respectable, it occludes not only her courtesan origins, but also her uncertain marital status. She is never an object of public scandal the way Rosie is.

This difference in respectability is attributable to the shift in attitude toward Indian classical arts in general, and women performers in particular, over the intervening period. The history of the specific style Rosie performs, Bharata Natyam, is instructive. Wikipedia outlines its progress from being banned as obscene to being reclaimed as a prestigious part of the nation's cultural heritage. This history is not unique to Bharata Natyam; all the Indian classical arts, including music, underwent a similar process of change from being regarded as dubious to being reëstablished as impeccably respectable. Alongside the independence movement, nationalist leaders called for precisely such a revitalization and repositioning of India's ancient arts. Janaki Bakhle quotes the scholar and musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande:

The leaders of the Nation who are for the present engrossed in saving the political future of the country should lend some portion of their energies to the regeneration of this art, so as to bring it within the vision of the nation and to rescue it from the decay which ends in death. The New India must be a full blown entity, and it would never do to omit the regeneration of our music from the programme of our workers.

Bhatkhande, V. N. "Propaganda for the Betterment of the Present Condition of Hindustani Music." Delhi: Laxmi Press, 1922. Quoted in Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford: OUP, 2005. p. 131.

Bakhle has argued that Indian music emerged as a classical form as part of the nationalist response to colonialism. Scholars and teachers such as Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the "two men" of her title, were part of a modernizing effort to cleanse music of its association with prostitutes and unlettered performers, and to establish it as a respectable art. This endeavor involved, pari passu, the entry of women into the public sphere. Bakhle's summary of the career of one of India's pioneering female classical vocalists, Hirabai Barodekar (1905–1989), is instructive in this context:

In the nineteeth century, women musicians were known as baijis—a euphemism for women of ill repute. When Hirabai began her career, she too had to battle the perception of women musicians as disreputable. By the middle of her career, she was known in musical circles by her family nickname, and she gave her last performance as a respected national artist.

Bakhle, op. cit. pp. 50–51.

Narayan alludes indirectly, perhaps inadvertently, to these changing cultural norms. The scandalous Rosie of 1958 becomes the revered Selvi of 1982:

In the course of a quarter-century, she had become a national figure; traveled widely in and out of the country. They named her the Goddess of Melody. When her name was announced, the hall, any hall, filled up to capacity and people fought for seats. When she appeared on the dais, the audience was thrilled as if vouchsafed a vision, and she was accorded a thundering ovation. When she settled down, gently cleared her throat and hummed softly to help the accompanists tune their instruments, a silence fell among the audience. Her voice possessed a versatility and reach which never failed to transport her audience. Her appeal was alike to the common, unsophisticated listener as to pandits, theorists, and musicologists, and even those who didn't care for any sort of music liked to be seen at her concerts for prestige's sake.

Narayan, "Selvi" p. 175

This shift is reflected in the differing views Marco and Mohan have of the performing arts. Marco is deeply interested in and knowledgeable about ancient Indian culture. He spends days studying temple friezes and cave paintings, eventually writing "a gorgeous book costing twenty rupees, full of art plates, a monograph on The Cultural History of South India" (p. 155). Nevertheless, he is hostile to Rosie's engagement with Bharata Natyam. She tells Raju:

"He is interested in painting and old art and things like that."

"But not one which can move its limbs, I suppose."

ibid. p. 65.

This exchange neatly opposes a dynamic, living tradition to one frozen in static postures from the past. But Raju too is no connoisseur of dance. His interest in Rosie's moving limbs is carnal rather than aesthetic. As such, the dynamic between Marco, Rosie, and Raju reinforces the idea that women involved in the arts are barred from marital respectability.

Like Marco, Mohan is deeply absorbed in India's cultural heritage. By contrast, however, the art he reveres is the very one that Selvi practices. Mohan's knowledge of classical music allows him to dictate even the pieces Selvi performs:

He planned every concert in detail. He would sit up in the afternoon with Selvi and suggest gently but firmly, "Wouldn't you like to start with the 'Kalyani Varnam'—the minor one?" And she would say, "Yes," never having been able to utter any other word in her life. He would continue, "The second item had better be Thiagaraja's composition in Begada, it'll be good to have a contrasting raga," and then his list would go on to fill up about four hours. "Don't bother to elaborate any Pallavi for this audience, but work out briefly a little detail in the Thodi composition. Afterwards you may add any item you like, light Bhajans, Javalis or folk-songs," offering her a freedom which was worthless, since the programme as devised would be tight-fitting for the duration of the concert.

Narayan, "Selvi" pp. 175–176.

If Rosie is unable to tolerate Marco's controlling nature and leaves him to pursue her dancing, Selvi seems willing to put up with Mohan's domineering as long as she can pursue her music. She does not put up very much resistance when he isolates her from her mother and siblings. She reaches breaking point only when her mother dies. Her stated reason for giving up her grand house in favor of her mother's run-down single room home specifically underscores her devotion to her art:

"I'm staying here as I did before ... "

"How can you? In this street!" She ignored his objection and said, "My mother was my guru; here she taught me music, lived and died ... I'll also live and die here; what was good for her is good for me too...."

ibid., p. 178.

Selvi's decision to spend all her time at her late mother's home in the red light district demonstrates how the changing social dynamics have altered not only the conditions of performance, but also those of pedagogy. Rosie does not apply to her mother, or any of her teachers, the term Selvi uses for hers: guru. Instead, Raju says:

She had a "dance-master" whom I discovered in Koppal, a man who had steeped himself in the traditional dance for half a century and lived in his village home. I ferreted him out and brought him over to Malgudi and gave him an outhouse in our compound to live in.

Narayan, The Guide p. 147.

Rosie's dance master is a hired hand on par with the musicians she pays to accompany her. Their relationship is transactional. Selvi's mother, however, is her guru. Redolent as it is with spiritual associations, the term determines not only Selvi's status as a student, but even her identity as a musician. A guru is by definition the one to whom Selvi owes everything, and whose lifestyle Selvi must see as worthy of emulation. As a student of classical music myself, even in this century, I cannot imagine criticizing any aspect of how my teachers lead their lives; it is unthinkable. But that is simply an indication of how successfully the classical arts of India have become not just respectable, but venerated. Selvi's rapt attention to music alone, her complete lack of interest in anything else, her belief that she must atone for not being with her mother when needed, and her desire to live out her days performing at her family home not for monetary gain but simply in tribute to her guru, all are aspects of the ideology that sustains the pedagogy and performance of India's classical arts. This ideology disguises the commercial aspects of those arts, which after all depend on audiences willing to pay performers and students willing to pay teachers.

If in the 1950s Narayan focuses on Rosie's hiring of a dancing master and her commercial success, it was a sign of the times: educated women could indeed be dancers, but they were still selling their art for money. They were not quite respectable yet. By the 1980s, though, Selvi is completely detached from any commercial or transactional aspect of her art. She has no mere singing master, but a guru, and she is devoted to music for its ideals alone. But this movement from courtesan to adherent, commercial to aesthetic, Rosie to Selvi, is achieved through the efforts of nationalists like Mohan, who carefully manages Selvi's image as Sadasivan did Subbulakshmi's. His endeavors make her a "national figure," a figure of and for the nation. When at the end of the story Mohan refers to Selvi as "Ungrateful wretch ..." (p. 180), one almost feels sorry for him.

  • Your angle is enlightening; ty for answering. That said, I don't quite understand why you say that their fortunes and careers take different trajectories. Complementing your "In the course of..." quote, I see "Rocket-like, she soared. Her name became public property. It was not necessary for me to elaborate or introduce her to the public now. The very idea would be laughed at. [...] She became known because she had the genius in her, and the public had to take notice of it." —Rosie did become famous. | Also, I like how your first Vescovi quote is shorter than its citation! Very scholarly :)
    – CDR
    Jan 9 at 13:31
  • @CDR majorly revised.
    – verbose
    Feb 14 at 1:41

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