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est. 26 Oct 2020

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The Vendor of Sweets by R. K. Narayan

January 19, 2021

The Vendor of Sweets
By R. K. Narayan
Indo-Anglian Fiction, Psychological Fiction
Recommended: For ages 15 and upwards

Located in the South of India, the village of Malgudi is a stronghold of tradition and the definition of convention. Everything and everyone in this village bows down to these traditional rules that seldom show themselves; invisible, if not for the deprecating sniffs that rustle white beards and the judgmental looks piercing wiry pairs of spectacles. From the corners of the dusty streets, tradition molds the villagers. Set in the most enthralling atmosphere and enlivened by palpable characters, this classic tells the tale of a relationship between a father and a son, a man who lost his wife and a boy who lost his mother, and how their relationship unveils in her absence.

Fifty-five-year-old Jagan, the owner of a thriving sweet shop, has grown up with tradition breathing down his neck. A product of conventional education, and now running a business according to the same unwritten law, he has also cherished a marriage with a wife he adored. Sadly, his marriage was short-lived, his wife passing away, stolen by a malignant brain tumor. Their only child Mali was still young when she died, leaving Jagan to raise him alone. Guided by nothing except the values of his childhood, Jagan is intrinsically traditional and a staunch believer of nature cures, yet he is a blind believer, often stating historical practices and philosophies, but when questioned further, replying "I do not know, but all our sages advise us so." (Narayan, p. 1). Jagan also prides himself on being true to the Gandhian principle of "simple living and high thinking" (Narayan, p. 36). Yet, for a man devoted to such a minimalistic philosophy, his mind is ravaged, setting him on an arduous journey to redeem himself when everything seems to be turned against him, everything being his beloved son, Mali.

Contradicting Jagan’s values and personality, Mali naturally becomes the conflict-creator of the story. He is modernistic, but unfortunately, his idea of modernity is misconceived. It borders on fantasy rather than reality. In this confounded state, he rejects his Indian roots, pursuing further studies in America, and, when he comes back, he comes back with a startling surprise: a half-American half-Korean wife named Grace, whom he simply introduces, saying; "This is Grace. We are married. Grace, my dad," (Narayan, p. 55). Jagan is appalled at this modernistic turn of events that flout all the Indian traditions related to marriage. As if this astounding revelation is not enough, Mali also holds a misbegotten idea for a story-writing machine. There onwards begins a battle between tradition and modernity, with Jagan on one end trying to make sense of Mali's actions and Mali on the other end, on a mission to convince Jagan to invest in an ill-planned story-writing business.

This novel is nothing short of a masterpiece. With its eloquent language, intelligent humor, and deft use of flashbacks, it becomes an engrossing read. Due to the third-person limited narration (centering Jagan), the reader becomes an insider to Jagan's life as he attempts to understand Mali's perplexing personality. Not only the main father-son duo but a myriad of characters live within the pages of this book, including but not limited to Mali's wife Grace, who becomes the symbol of the clash and communion between the east and the west, Jagan's late wife Ambika (brought alive through flashbacks), an advisor to Jagan who claims to be everyone's cousin, a mysterious visitor named Chinna Dorai who brings about Jagan's catharsis, and undeniably, the village of Malgudi itself, with its dynamic and mystifying nature of self-containment and ambiguity. Jagan's thoughts are delivered to the reader as they appear in his mind. Unfiltered on the page, they add poignance, sincerity, and even a touch of humor to the book. In addition to these intricate elements that weave the story together, the reader's sense of taste is irresistibly arrested through the mouthwatering descriptions of Jagan's sweet shop, the backdrop for many pivotal scenes. The narration also contains several intriguing philosophies that are bound to wander the reader's mind long after they are read: "We always do it; no one ever notices it, but we always create a small flaw in every image; it's for safety." (Narayan, p. 114). Rather than complicating the storyline, these philosophical statements add more depth to the story.

Thus, accompanied by fascinating figments of imagination and the perfect pick of literary elements, R. K. Narayan brings into being this beautiful story of lost identity and finding oneself in life, in partnership, but most importantly in our own hearts. He addresses this age-old question, with the help of a character, lost in life, who searches for himself in all the wrong places, with a father's silent suffering to understand his son who's "movements were so finely adjusted out of his own orbit," (Narayan p. 39), because the pull of a father's love is gravitating, but, maybe to find oneself, gravity must fall, and orbits need to collide. 
Word Count: 836

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  • January 19, 2021 - 2:03pm (Now Viewing)

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7 Comments
  • SunV

    I just saw this! R.K. Narayan is amazing, and although I haven't read this book, I've read quite a few of them (Like Emi, I've read his version of Ramayana) but I'll be sure to check this one out!!


    8 months ago
  • Zirong

    THIS IS SOOOOO GOOD! The flow is PERFECT, and your language use is just EXTRAORDINARY! I really adore the last paragraph, especially the last line -- it's such a heart-wrenchingly beautiful and profound ending line!

    btw, I really miss you <3


    8 months ago
  • Emi

    Re: oh, also, my hashtag on the username comes from a New Year challenge from hold on to the memories.


    8 months ago
  • Emi

    This sounds like a really good story! I actually read Narayan's book The Ramayana and enjoyed it a lot; I would love to read more of his work.


    8 months ago
  • Anne Blackwood

    Re: Thank you!!! Ah yes, belonging... *Anne Shirley sigh*


    8 months ago
  • Yellow Sweater

    Thanks:) that means a lot, especially coming from you.


    8 months ago
  • Yellow Sweater

    Re: thank you so much! sometimes I think it's too abstract which was sort of what that piece was about, but other times I realize that I just have to embrace the fact that abstract writing is my style:)


    8 months ago