The Vendor of Sweets Summary and Study Guide

R. K. Narayan

The Vendor of Sweets

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  • Features 13 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by an academic writing expert from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts
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The Vendor of Sweets Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 25-page guide for “The Vendor of Sweets” by R. K. Narayan includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 13 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Tradition vs Modernity and Money as an Evil .

Plot Summary

The Vendor of Sweets is a 1967 novel by R. K. Narayan that analyzes the clash between modern and traditional Indian culture. The book centers on the relationship between Jagan, a sweets vendor and strict follower of Gandhi’s asceticism, and his son, Mali, who rejects his father’s values in favor of more liberal Western ideas.

Jagan is 55 years old at the beginning of the novel and lives a life of strict asceticism, eating only wheat, greens, and honey, even cutting salt and sugar from his diet. He closely follows the Bhagavad Gita (or simply, the Gita), a core Hindu scripture that Gandhi referred to as his “spiritual dictionary.” Formerly politically active, and in fact jailed for demonstrating during India’s revolution, he now lives a quiet life as a widower and successful businessman. He believes strongly in naturopathy, and has in fact written a book on the subject, the publication of which is long-delayed by the printer. Jagan’s wife, Ambika, died many years ago due to his insistence on treating her with natural remedies. Though he practices personal asceticism, he makes his living indulging others’ desire for sweets, and showcases greed by squirreling away a portion of his profits before taxation.

Jagan’s son, Mali, is his only child, born after ten years of marriage and a pilgrimage to the temple of Santana Krishna at Badri Hill to seek help conceiving. Mali watched his father attempt to cure his mother’s brain tumor with natural remedies instead of modern medicine, and blamed his father for her death. Now a young man, Mali is intent on becoming a writer. Without consulting his father, Mali drops out of college and steals some of his father’s money to move to America to attend a writing program. Though hurt by his son’s rejection of his way of life, Jagan soon begins bragging about his son in America. He receives letters, mostly impersonal, over the next few years as Mali further distances himself from his father’s culture. In one letter, Mali even admits: “I’ve taken to eating beef; and I don’t think I am any the worse for it” (a clear rejection of his father’s Hinduism).

After three years in America, Mali writes that he is arriving home with another person. He appears with Grace, a half-American, half-Korean woman that Jagan assumes is Mali’s wife. Though shocked, Jagan takes a liking to her, as she is warm and kind to Jagan in ways that Mali is not. She tries to take up the duties of a traditional Indian daughter-in-law: cooking, cleaning, and even decorating the house. She transforms Jagan’s house, westernizing it to such an extent that he feels uncomfortable.

Mali expresses his desire to start a factory producing novel-writing machines. It will automate the writing process, making India’s literary output challenge the West. Mali asks for a loan from his father to start the factory. Jagan is horrified at the idea, as he believes that great writing comes from a connection to God. Jagan sees Mali’s machine as an attempt to sever that link. In addition, Jagan comes to suspect that “Grace’s interest, friendliness and attentiveness” are “a calculated effort to win his dollars.” Though he tries to simply ignore the issue, or resist through Gandhian “non-violent non-cooperation,” Mali and Grace force him to give a concrete answer. Jagan instead offers to let Mali take over his sweets shop, but Mali sneeringly responds that “ better plans than to be a vendor of sweetmeats.”

As he is processing Mali’s strange business venture and rejection of his traditional lifestyle, Chinaa Dorai, a sculptor seeking patronage to complete a sculpture of goddess Gayatri, visits Jagan. The sculptor brings him to the isolated grove where he lives and works. As Jagan visits and views the work in progress, he feels that “sweetmeat vending, money and his son’s problems to blur.” When Chinaa Dorai asks if Jagan will buy the grove to support his work, he resists at first but eventually agrees, saying: “Yes, yes, God knows I need a retreat. You know, my friend, at some stage in one’s life one must uproot oneself from the accustomed surroundings and disappear so that others may continue in peace.”

In a discussion with Grace, Jagan soon discovers that she and Mali are not married after all. He is shocked and hurt, feeling that they have tainted his ancestral home. He feels so disconnected from his home and tarnished by his son’s moral laxness that he decides to retire and abandon his home and business and escape to the grove, thus fulfilling the Hindu tradition of Vanaprastha—withdrawal from the material world and passing on of responsibilities to the next generation.

As Jagan prepares to leave, his cousin tells him that Mali has been arrested for drunkenness, violating prohibition laws. Jagan’s resolve to retreat remains unchanged, and he in fact asks that the cousin to do what he can to ensure that Mali stays in prison long enough to learn his lesson. He hands over the keys to the business and sets aside some money for Grace to buy a plane ticket home as he retreats to the grove.

The Vendor of…

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Chapters 1-4