The Vendor of Sweets. R. K. Narayan.
India’s Kali Yuga…. December 21, 2000
The novelist R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) was born into a Tamil-speaking, Brahmin family. For several years he attended Christian schools in Madras, where he was raised by his grandmother, a devout Hindu who taught him the traditional songs and prayers. His fiction often presents a persona who undergoes a crisis that drives him back in some way to a resolution suffused with an evocation of the Hindu past. Often portrayed as a simple pious Hindu, R. M. Varma, of the University of Jodhpur, more insightfully observes, “Cultural ambivalence is a marked characteristic of Narayan’s fictional technique and he hovers between his Hindu faith and lack of it. He merely uses it as a landscape in his fiction.”
In his brilliant The Vendor of Sweets (1967), Narayan presents a character named Jagan who owns a small shop that sells sweetmeats. Presented as somewhat of a religious crank, he is a follower of Gandhi who still works his spinning wheel and sits in his shop reading the Bhagavad Gita in between customers. Jagan lives in an idealized traditional India of long ago incongruously conflated with the modern present.
Jagan’s only son Mali fully lives in the modern world, not only of India but of America as well. Dropping out of college, as Jagan had as a young man out of misconstrued loyalty to Gandhi, Mali, without consulting with his father, enrolls in a creative writing program in Michigan and helps himself to Jagan’s attic stash of rupees in order to pay his expenses. Narayan consistently portrays Mali as a son who has lost all the traditional Hindu virtues while Jagan spoils him and makes excuses for him.
After three years in America Jagan abruptly receives a cable announcing Mali’s return with “another person” whom upon arrival at the train station he introduces as his wife, Grace. Jagan suffers a severe shock. His son has not only gone to America, where he in fact does begin to eat beef, but married there without informing his family. Further disoriented because the girl is a Korean-American, Jagan thinks she is Chinese and reflects, “Don’t you know that one can’t marry a Chinese nowadays? They have invaded our borders. . . .” Having stopped reading the Bhagavad Gita while receiving letters he believed were from Mali in America, but were actually from Grace, Jagan starts reading it “becoming mentally disturbed once again.” Narayan subtly dramatizes his reading of the Gita as linked to his disturbed relationship with his son and thereby with modern India. Before long Grace, his new daughter-in-law, begins to take charge of the house and care for Jagan, his wife having died while Mali was in America. Soon she transforms the part of the nineteenth-century house in which she and Mali live with modern Western paintings and furnishings.
In one of the few revealing statements by Mali, “with a gesture of disgust,” he says to his father, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors. Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.” Satirizing the trash creative writing programs churn out in America, Narayan underscores simultaneously the gulf between father and son, traditional and modern.
Shock upon modern shock rolls over Jagan. His son not only lived unmarried with a foreign woman of mixed descent in his ancestral home but shamelessly concealed it from his father. As Jagan explains to the cousin, “Even my grandfather’s brother, who was known to be immoral, never did this sort of thing.” His “dirtied” home, “which had remained unsullied for generations, had this new taint to carry.” Since all of Jagan’s traditional, conventional relations have already “ostracized him” over the “beef-eating Christian girl for a daughter-in-law,” Jagan realizes they would “remove themselves further” should they learn of the “latest development.” In a significant moment of honesty, Jagan observes he “felt grateful for being an outcast, for it absolved him from obligations as a member of the family.” Jagan sits in the dark by the Sir Frederick Lawley statue, a relic from the British past, and meditates on his own arranged marriage in a richly embellished chapter that brilliantly evokes the traditional marriage customs of the joint family system in India and devastatingly insinuates the decayed state of his own house and modern India.
Jagan awakens in the dawn from his night of memories, fantasizing again of entering “a new janma.” In regard to the traditional ceremony marking a man turning sixty, the narrator honestly concedes again that Jagan himself “had had his fill of these festivals.” In his own way, the narrator frequently intimates, Jagan has picked over and repudiated various customs from the past. So one relative is imagined as saying how could the son Mali be different with “a father like Jagan.” Narayan suggests a subtle, logical, and culminating connection of decline between father and son.
The values of the Ramayana and other sacred texts have no resonance for Mali. Jagan, lost and faltering, unable to cope fully with the clash of his traditional values with the modern world, resolves absurdly to retreat across the river, taking his bank book with him, after agreeing to pay for a lawyer for Mali and offering an airline ticket for Grace to return to America: “It’s a duty we owe her.”
V. S. Naipaul has remarked of Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets that it is “a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium . . . collapses into something like despair.” In his “On Alternative Modernities,” Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar has similarly observed, “Everywhere, at every national or cultural site, the struggle with modernity is old and familiar.” Narayan has so thoroughly undermined and complicated Jagan with the tensions of twentieth-century life, deep within the structure of the narrative voice itself, only the most shallow or tendentious reading can fail to perceive the scathing critique of both the antedated and bankrupt, traditional and modern, values of India and Western civilization.