At the heart of R. K. Narayan’s The Man Eater of Malgudi lies the relationship between the narrator Nataraj, a warm-hearted printer of the town, and Vasu, an eccentric taxidermist who forces himself into Nataraj’s attic and uses it to house himself and practice his profession. Nataraj is described as a spineless, submissive and sensitive fellow. He sits in his press all the time surrounded by the poet and the journalist. Vasu enters the quiet scene of Malgudi and Nataraj becomes totally upset as he has never seen in his life a person so savage and wild by nature. He looks totally helpless before Vasu. The submissive and accepting attitude that Nataraj has developed under his orthodox parents never encourage him to face the challenges of life. It is no wonder that a person of his mentality leaves everything to the divine power, and always keeps praying for help. Nataraj symbolizes the peaceful life of Malgudi. The neatness with which he runs his printing press gets a jolt with the arrival of Vasu.
Though Vasu is adamant in his behavior and a bully in nature, Nataraj does not hate him as he appreciates his power and his confidence. Nataraj is overwhelmed by the spirit and courage of Vasu. He feels that Vasu is a demoniac creature who possesses massive strength, strange powers and intellect. In the presence of Vasu he loses his own self. He is proud of his powerful muscle and it is for this that Nataraj appreciates him and also distances himself from him.
Nataraj is typically a modest simple man whose words and deeds tend to create an impression that he is hesitant, shy and submissive. In the words of Vasu Nataraj is ‘a spineless person’ (p. 101). He is generous, obliging and accommodating. When he is dragged by Vasu to Mempi, he gets concerned in the affairs of the village and even assures Muthu, the tea-shop owner, of printing the notices and even helping him in curing the temple elephant, Kumar. He helps the poet in getting the poems printed and takes a leading part the function in the temple on the release of the book. He is very honest and sincere in attitude. A perfect gentleman he even praises high about the neighbouring Star Press, which owns an original
Heidelberg machine, whenever he faces the difficulty of being over- loaded with work. He fails to turn away any customer and with a little bit of insistence he accepts the burden. A law-abiding citizen he knows his responsibilities and limitations very well. As a good citizen he is interested in the welfare of the community at large and is even willing to sacrifice the profits he makes from the press.
When Nataraj interferes and questions about his activities, Vasu, in turn, files a complaint against him to the rent control authority by saying that Nataraj is a self-declared tenant. Nataraj is shattered but he knows very well that he will not be able to come to terms with Vasu’s obstinate nature. It is only during the release of the poetry book of Krishna by the author friend of Nataraj that the climax takes place. Rangi, the temple dancer who had become close to Vasu, informs Nataraj that Vasu is determined to kill the temple elephant, Kumar. Nataraj had brought the elephant to town earlier from Mempi Hills to treat an illness and also to do a favour in turn to one of his friends there who had helped him when Vasu had left him astray. Nataraj is shocked to learn from Rangi that present intention was to kill the temple elephant for the sake business. He desperately tries to stop the procession but it has taken such a huge form that it becomes impossible for him to intervene. At that time his only rescue, he feels, is in the power of the Almighty and like a madman he raises his hands up for prayer. Then he decides to talk to Vasu one last time with the hope that if at all he can somehow convince him and with this intention he goes up to the attic. As he goes up the steps he comes across many stuffed animals and he is overwhelmed by the mastery of art.
As Nataraj enters the dark attic he catches the outline of Vasu and immediately starts dissuading him from the terrible action he has planned. When no response comes from Vasu’s side he proceeds further to notice that Vasu is sleeping with his gun on his lap. Immediately he seizes the gun and aims it at him with his finger on the trigger. He becomes sure of his approach because he knows that without the gun he will not be able to restrict Vasu when he gets up to shoot the elephant. But to his utter surprise Vasu does not get up and the procession passes by calmly. The next morning the revelation of Vasu’s death shocks the town. Finally when Vasu dies it is Nataraj who becomes the chief suspect though he comes from a family who even looks upon the killing of a fly as a crime. He loses his face and his press loses its reputation. It is only the autopsy report that finally proves Vasu’s fault and Nataraj’s innocence.The case is closed and Nataraj is let free but the reputation of his press is ruined and his friends and customers start avoiding him. At the end it is Sastri who informs Nataraj that Vasu was not murdered, but died in an attempt to smash a mosquito sitting on his temple. One of his nerves was damaged by the powerful blow of his own hand and he died immediately. Nataraj is finally rid of Vasu and the novel ends with a note that the devils or the rakshashas bring their own downfall. It is certainly a story of eternal conflict between the Good and the Evil personified in the two characters, Nataraj and Vasu, rutted against each other in unusual situations.
But it is not just charm and virtue that Nataraj possesses. He is also shrewd, insistent, ambitious and not free from self-interest. From the beginning of the novel itself the complexity of Nataraj is quite visible. Although he appears to be quite selfless, allowing casual visitors in his parlour, he is aware of the fact that ‘while they rested there, people got ideas from bill forms, visiting cards or wedding invitations which they asked me to print’.