Indian remedies, private sorrows – Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets

R.K. Narayan.  

Jagan achieves great success as a sweet-vendor: fails dismally as a father. He recovers from his private sorrows and moves on.

Jagan recalls Mahatmaji often.

“When he remembered the word ‘service’, any activity became touched with significance. ‘Service’ intoxicated him, sent a thrill through his whole being and explained everything. The first time he had heard the word was in 1937 when Mahatma Gandhi visited Malgudi and had addressed a vast gathering on the sands of the river. He spoke of ‘service’, explaining how every human action acquired a meaning when it was performed as a service. Inspired by this definition, Jagan joined the movement for freeing India from foreign rule, gave up his studies, home and normal life and violated the British laws of the time. Neither the beatings from the police nor the successive periods of prison life ever touched him when he remembered that he was performing a ‘service’” (p. 47).

As a satyagrahi, Jagan had attempted audaciously to pull down the Union Jack from the Collector’s bungalow: “they had to beat him and crack open his skull in order to make him let go his hold” (138).

Comments the novelist, “His training was always there, but somehow had dimmed inexplicably” (138). The results of the distancing are patent now.

Narayan’s success in the post-Independence period owes much to his talent for artistic distancing from his protagonists; it is the detachment of narratorial wisdom. Take the hero of The Vendor of Sweets, a novel of suffused wit. A faddist has problems with his people. His wife “hated his theories and lived her own life” (27). A theorist hero can try the patience of the reader as much as he does his dear ones: with his “non-violent” footwear (5); “his theories of sound living” (26), his “theory of keeping a thing for seven years” (81); his “theories of sane living” (120), or health-giving activities. For an extreme development of Jagan, for the terminal avatar, we will have to wait until Nagaraj of The World of Nagaraj.

Over the decades Jagan has evolved a “delicate balance.” Jagan has managed to achieve an intricate alliance in equal measure of cash and scripture; of iham and param (this world and the next).

As long as the frying and sizzling noise in the kitchen continued and the trays passed, Jagan noticed nothing, his gaze unflinchingly fixed on the Sanskrit lines in a red bound copy of the Bhagavad Gita, but if there was the slightest pause in the sizzling, he cried out, without lifting his eyes from the sacred text, “What is happening?” (18)

Comments the novelist wryly: “He had the outlook of a soul disembodied, floating above the grime of this earth” (14). Jagan is pleased when his cousin tells him: “You have perfected the art of living on nothing” (16).

Now Jagan also recalls Gandhi selectively: “but Gandhi made no reference to the sales tax anywhere to Jagan’s knowledge” (117): to support his unaccounted, hence untaxed income, of “immaculate conception!” (20) “Immaculate cash.” In popular parlance: black money. ““Money is an evil,” he added with great feeling” (87). And “he could no more help it than he could the weeds flourishing in his backyard” (116-117).

What the novelist also achieves in the novel, among other things, is a timely and well-warranted parody of Gandhian philosophy. Jagan’s perversions are microcosmic; represent the national deviations and distortions in the post-Independence India, presented by our novelists as early as in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Jhabvala and Khushwant Singh; and later by Vikram Seth and other 1980s novelists.

Jagan’s attitude to the Scripture is ambiguous: ‘As long as his son Mali’s blue airmail letters had been the theme, the Gita had receded into the background. Now it was coming back, which showed that Jagan was becoming mentally disturbed again’ (67). Similarly, for our hero now “prayer was a sound way of isolating oneself…” (89).

Generation gap is central to The Vendor of Sweets: “[young men] are a problem everywhere” (32). Jagan observes, with some justice: “It’s not like my generation; we came under the spell of Gandhi and could do no wrong” (45). Mali ticks off his father Jagan, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors” (84). Even physically, the American sojourn seems to have had a peculiar effect on the young man: “He seemed to cower back and recoil from the bright Indian sunlight” (150).

In the post-Independence period beginning with The Financial Expert, Narayan is fascinated by the theme of generation gap; a feature of the disintegrating joint family; Narayan sings praises of the joint family in My Dateless Diary. Keeping in mind the benefits of his own joint family, as a “specimen of this system,” Narayan holds forth on its virtues in the US: he advises Americans that “family life should become broader […] people should become less self-centred” (72); and children grow up “without neurosis, angularities, over-sensitiveness” (73).

Jagan’s “zeal for education” recalls Margayya’s travails with his son's schooling. Margayya fails as a father; Jagan fares worse. Jagan himself realises his failure; he resolves piously to “give him more time” (23), as he talks glibly of his social concern. “‘‘For twenty years,” Jagan reflected, “he has grown up with me, under the same roof, but how little I have known him!”” (41-42). Secretly, his mind is bothered as to why there is always “an invisible barrier” (42) between him and his son. “Peace reigned at home, with speech reduced to a minimum between father and son” (47); and “Though they lived under one roof, they might be in two different worlds” (48). The astute cousin, Jagan’s confidant, observes: “That means you have carried things to a point where you cannot speak to him at all” (50).

Jagan’s response to the vagrant eating the leftovers in the leaf plates thrown out by the citizens of Malgudi is characteristic: “his head throbbed with several national and human problems and their ramifications” (22). At the same time, the novelist is preparing the reader for the development later: as Jagan returns home: “He stood for a moment gazing at the stars, enthralled at the spectacle of the firmament…. And feeling proud that he was also a part of the same creation” (24).

The genesis of the barrier between Jagan and his son Mali may be traced to an early trauma of the boy, full of affection for his ailing and suffering mother — “He came running home from school in order to feed her, rarely going out to play with his friends” (43). The boy watched his mother suffer helplessly while his father neglected her, let her suffer alone: “From that day, the barrier had come into being. The boy had ceased to speak to him normally” (44).

Jagan was “aghast at the transformations that had come with time” (81), unaware of his own distortions. The old man pities his paternal self: “He can’t speak even two sentences without upsetting me” (136). The mother-son-father equilibrium is disturbed beyond repair in this novel, unlike in The Financial Expert. Narayan sums up Jagan’s plight variously: “private sorrows” (32): “the serious burden of life” (33); “inside he was all torn up” (39). Jagan is overcome by the universal anguish: “Though at one time Jagan had sighed for a word from his son, he now wished that the thaw had not occurred.” (88) He is cut up that his son “didn’t want him if he did not claim to be a wealthy father!” (96)

And “Fate seemed to decree that there should be no communication between them” (132). “A tremendous stillness reigned over the house” (134). “This looks like somebody else’s home” (138). For “they [Mali and his live-in partner, Grace] had tainted his ancient home” (141).

A startling image has driven home the changed relationship with his son: “He felt shy and reserved about talking of his son — like one not wishing to exhibit his sores” (126).

The setting for this drama, this disintegration is once again an “ancient house” (24): “Theirs had been the brightest home in those days. That was long before the birth of Mali, years even before his marriage” (154); “[e]everything in this home had the sanctity of usage” (25); which anticipates the description of the front door in The World of Nagaraj. Jagan wails helplessly, “I don’t know how I can live in that house without him. The very thought depresses me” (55).

Mali tells off his father, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors” (84). The joint family is falling apart; the cause, from Jagan’s point of view, is the younger generation: “they are not the sort to make a home bright.” (181). The sentiments anticipate The Painter of Signs and The World of Nagaraj. Failure of the family as a hoary institution reaches its lowest point in The World of Nagaraj.

The clash of generations is the engine of critical change.

Jagan throws up his hands: “I have had enough” (98). He hints to his cousin, “Some changes are coming…. I have left things to drift too long” (99). Drawing from his prolonged acquaintance with the Gita, he declares: “No good has been achieved without a fight at the proper time” (103).

Certain signs of recuperation are inevitable in the world of Narayan’s novels; the only exception will be The World of Nagaraj, the finale of the series focusing on the theme of the family disintegration. For even with such a hero as Jagan, self-analysis leads to self-development. “For years his fixed orbit had been between the statue and the shop, his mental operations confined to Mali, the cousin and frying” (112): already we have here yet another introspective pointer to the conversion to come by the end of the novel. Now Jagan yearns for the river: as much as Market Road, the river Sarayu is a healing presence in the world of R.K. Narayan. The river calls up other value associations, like friendships lost for want of cultivation — “hardly uttering four syllables in twenty years” (112).

Jagan also returns to Mahatma Gandhi with genuine warmth: he “had felt his whole life change when he heard that voice” (112). Now he claims proudly, “Gandhi was my master” (112). The novelist has already prepared us, and early: that his hero carried “a vestige of conscience from his days of public service” (31). Jagan’s rehabilitation is signalled by his return to the Mahatma.

When the time is ripe, the novelist introduces a catalyst, a creative agent, into the life of the protagonist; villagers, rural India, for example, in The Bachelor of Arts, and The Guide. Here in The Vendor of Sweets, the instrument of regeneration is the religious sculptor, an idol-maker: who, like the headmaster of the pre-Independence novel, The English Teacher, touches a chord of tradition and culture in Jagan, a whole new value-system.

“Watching him in this setting, it was difficult for Jagan, as he mutely followed him, to believe that he was in the twentieth century. Sweetmeat vending, money and his son’s problems seemed remote and unrelated to him. The edge of reality itself was beginning to blur; this man from the previous millennium seemed to be the only object worth notice; he looked like one possessed” (118).

Thus begins the reconstructive phase, the return journey in the hero’s life, Jagan’s return to self, nivrtthi marga. Narayan steadily charts Jagan’s transformation.

“He went on talking and Jagan listened agape as if a new world had flashed into view. He suddenly realised how narrow his whole existence had been — between the Lawley Statue and the frying shop; Mali’s antics seemed to matter naught. “Am I on the verge of a new janma?” He wondered. Nothing seemed really to matter. “Such things are common in ordinary existence and always passing,”’ he said aloud” (119-120).

Jagan “felt a sense of elevation — it would be such a wonderful moment to die, leaving the perennial problems of life to solve themselves.” (121-122) Jagan longs for “[a]nything but a money-making sweet-maker with a spoilt son” (122). The retrieval of the block of stone marked for carving the statue of a goddess marks yet another stage in Jagan’s life; it has to happen, sooner or later, given the world of Narayan, the novelist’s optimism, faith in the higher possibilities of human nature. Though his son Mali disturbs him still, at the same time he had a feeling that his [own] identity was undergoing a change … he was a different man at this moment. An internal transformation had taken place; although he still cared for the shop and house this latest contact had affected him profoundly. The gods must have taken pity on his isolated, floundering condition and sent this white-bearded saviour … his mind analysed everything with the utmost clarity … The man had really communicated a thrilling vision when he described the goddess with five heads … An internal transformation had taken place” (127).

He goes back to his charkha-spinning. “One enters a new life at the appointed time and it's foolish to resist” (129): Jagan is alluding to the asramas, socio-spiritual stages of the Hindu way of life. Once he appreciates that '”circumstances pushed one across the threshold of a new personality” (130), he discovers within himself a new strength: “[h]e was beginning to shed the awe in which he had held his son” (130). “In a few hours, I have undergone a lot of change, but the boy doesn’t know it” (130). It follows: “He was not scared, as he would have been forty-eight hours ago” (130). For, “I am a new personality and have to speak a new tongue” (130). Finally, “he was no longer his old self” (138).

Jagan has done poorly with the upbringing of his son partly because “[h]e was a cowardly father” (30); in the crisis later, we see “Jagan did not have the courage to stay and face him” (96) He has mustered scriptural support: “No good has been achieved without a fight at the proper time” (103). His cousin tells him: “You have beaten about the bush and practically lost contact with your son…” (139) At the same time the cousin consoles: “Our young men live in a different world from ours and we must not let ourselves be upset too much by certain things they do” (143).

The cousin, unnamed (like the hero’s wife in Mr. Sampath), is several entities in one; confidant; a sort of lay psychiatrist and legal counsel, he is a home-made business consultant to merchants. “Flattery was his accredited business in life; even when joked and disparaged it was all a part of his flattery (76)”; “a man about town,” (13), and “the peace-maker”(99), he offers wise counsel to Jagan: “the cousin now brought the matter down to a practical level, as he always did” (144); and “His role was to help Jagan crystallise his attitudes in a crisis” (144); he is factotum to many: “I have to do various things for various persons” (79). “The cousin was extremely practical and knew exactly what should be done” (186). A fixer! (188). ““No wonder he was in such demand,” thought Jagan, all over the town” (186); he is the informant, emissary and ersatz uncle to Jagan’s son, Mali. And clown: witness his flying frantically on his bike, “his tuft flying in the wind…” (184). Of course, Jagan and the cousin are made for each other: Jagan “explained the situation in a round-about way without letting the cousin know too much” (137).

When Mali is arrested under anti-prohibition laws, Jagan arranges for his bail; and hands over the management of his business to his cousin. “Jagan’s mind had attained extraordinary clarity now” (190); we recall that is what Margayya too achieves on the last page of The Financial Expert; The Vendor of Sweets takes The Financial Expert one step further. Not just the satvic heroes of the pre-Independence novels, even the rajasic characters of the post-Independence period seek “clarity” in life, a proper perspective: “I will seek a new interest — different from the set of repetitions performed for sixty years” (190). It is never too late to seek moral content, spiritual direction, to one’s life. “I am off to a retreat. I’m sixty and in a new janma” (184). “I don’t care…. I am going to watch a goddess come out of a stone” (191). And “The cousin was amazed at the transformation in Jagan” (192). As in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, we have here another “piety project” offering succour to the hero.

Jagan carries his cheque-book into his “retirement”; after all, our hero is not taking sanyasa, he is going into vanaprasthya (“retiring to the forests”), the penultimate stage before sanyasa. “…retirement. What a magic word!” (182). Later, retreating from life — even more so since “this was going to be a kind of death actually, although he’d breathe, watch, and occasionally keep in touch, but the withdrawal would not be different from death” (184).

Jagan’s response, remedy to his “private sorrows” (32) is central to the Indian tradition. After all, as the Talkative Man says in one of Narayan’s short stories, “Around a Temple”: “…it is very simple to please a god.”

Easier than indulging a spoilt son.

Margayya would approve.

Ranga Rao, novelist, is Visiting Faculty at SSSIHL (Deemed to be a University, Prasanthi Nilayam (AP).

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Printable version | Oct 13, 2021 5:16:56 PM |

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