In Malgudi Days, although R.K. Narayan seems to present us with a bleak portrayal of India where life is very hard and there is very little human happiness, he means to reflect the triumph of the human spirit over the cruel circumstances of life. In India, poverty and the lack of education are prejudiced against and people are discriminated against because they are poor. In ‘A Willing Slave’, Ayah is discriminated against and treated badly merely because she is an uneducated servant. When she comes back late for the first time after her visit home, her employers imagine the worst, thinking ‘she has perhaps been run over by a car and killed’, ‘she must have taken it in her head to give herself a holiday. No one is indispensable. I will dismiss her for this.’ Although Ayah has contributed much to the family, no one but Radha appreciates it. The same goes for Sidda in ‘Leela’s Friend’, who is immediately assumed to be a thief simply because he was an ex-convict.
However, the characters are not totally unhappy. Both Ayah and Sidda have a close, loving relationship with their charges, Radha and Leela, who seem to cling on to them more than they do to their parents. The children are free from prejudice and appreciate the true value of their servants. It is also untrue that the vicious cycle of poverty condemns a person to a life of unhappiness. In the story ‘The Martyr’s Corner’, the lack of education does not mean a poor and unhappy life for Rama, who was said to be ‘earning more money than graduates’. At times, external circumstances overturn previously happy lives and characters are not in control of their destiny. In ‘The Axe’, the appearance of the developers literally tear down Velan’s happy existence and forces him to leave the house. In ‘The Martyr’s Corner’, Rama is forced to become a waiter when his life starts on a downward spiral after his ‘old spot’ was taken up by a statue of a dead political leader.
Yet, while the characters are not in control of external factors, they still have control over their inner lives. Rama lives with and adapts to his new environment and still retains his usual, placid manner. People also seem to be manipulated and exploited by other people. In ‘Selvi’, Mohan uses Selvi as an emotionless mannequin, even to the point where he gives her a ‘script’ to follow, all for money and his personal fame. However, Selvi’s emotional and spiritual self does not seem to be affected. She was ‘rapt in some secret melody or world of her own’ and even though Mohan controls her body, he is unable to control her mind. She also eventually rebels and goes back to live in her old home. In ‘A Willing Slave’, Ayah seems to have been exploited by her employers. Her ‘self-imposed tasks’ go unappreciated and even when her husband takes her away, he feels ‘proud of his slave’.
However, Ayah seems spiritually happy at being used, she seems to need feeling needed and is as happy serving others as they are exploiting her. It is her happiness that matters in the end. There seems to be little human happiness presented in Malgudi Days. Love causes hurt and pain, people are torn apart by conflicting circumstances. Mixed blessings give cause for lament when people cannot enjoy their rewards. In ‘Forty-Five A Month’, Venkat Rao cannot spend more time with his family as he seems to have been purchased outright for forty-five rupees. However, as we look behind his reasons for slaving at his job, we find that he swallows insults at work so that his family can swallow food. His love for his daughter is great and it gives rise to his motivation at work. In ‘A Shadow’, Sambu misses his father immensely as he loves him a lot. However, the very existence of Love is a great triumph for the human spirit. Therefore, though there may be hardship and suffering, in the end we see that the human spirit has the ultimate victory.