25 pages • 50 minutes read
A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.
In R.K. Narayan’s novel The Vendor of Sweets, the tension between old and young India is the backdrop against which a father and son clash. Jagan, a 55 year old man who is steeped in tradition, is a bundle of contradictions. He is a passionate follower of Gandhi, embracing non-violent cooperation and an ascetic lifestyle. However, he is also boastful when it comes to his own self-control. It is not enough that he has renounced sugar and salt, he is compelled to tell others about it. Furthering the irony is that Jagan works as the titular vendor of sweets. Although he believes indulging in sugar is both unhealthy and contrary to Gandhi’s teachings, he earns his living selling sugary confections to others. More complicated yet is the fact that Jagan skims a portion of each day’s profits, hoarding it away so that he will not have to pay taxes on his unreported income.
Jagan’s son Mali throws Jagan’s life into tumult when he announces that he no longer wants to study at the university. Mali has been a great source of pride to Jagan, but this is largely because he has never shown signs of independence. His decision to leave school threatens Jagan’s ideas about his son, and the example that he has set for him. But Mali reveals that he is quitting school to become a writer. Jagan has also written a book—a compendium of natural cures—that has been in limbo for years with a local printer. It is revealed that Jagan’s insistence that his wife not take traditional medicine for a headache led to her death from a brain condition. Mali has always blamed Jagan for her death.
Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!
The growing separation between them becomes literal when Mali announces that he is going to America to study writing. He has enrolled in a class that teaches novel writing. Jagan is anxious about his decision, and greatly saddened when he sees that Mali has been secretly stealing money from him to pay for his trip. They correspond sporadically by letters for the next three years. Then Mali suddenly announces that he is coming home. Not only that, he is bringing someone with him.
When Jagan meets his son at the train station, Mali is with Grace, an American woman. Jagan is astonished to learn that they are married. Grace is an amiable bride and quickly inserts herself into Jagan’s life. She cleans his house, asks to cook for him, and so threatens his self-satisfied air of self-reliance that he quickly grows uneasy around her. But Grace is the least of his challenges. Mali has come back from America with an idea for a company. He wants to invest in the manufacture of what he calls story-writing machines. In the West, he says that 10,000 books are published every season. His company will allow India and other eastern countries to compete in the literary arena. All he needs is for Jagan to invest in the company. Jagan does what he can to ignore the request, but soon Mali forces the question on him. Will you help me or not? Jagan says that the best he can do is to leave the sweet shop to him. Mali is mocking and furious in his condemnation of his father’s low aspirations.
The SuperSummary difference
When Jagan meets a hair-dyer named Chinna Dorai, he finds an unexpected peace. Chinna is a sculptor. It is his life’s ambition to finish a sculpture of the goddess Gayatri. He takes Jagan to the secret grove where he resides, and where he pursues his art. As Jagan sees the tranquility of Chinna’s life, his own problems suddenly seem trivial. He agrees to buy the grove and become Chinna’s patron, allowing him to finish the image of the goddess.
At the novel’s climax, Jagan learns that Mali and Grace never actually married. Ashamed at the moral pollution they brought into his home, and angry at his own inability to see it, Jagan retires from his business and flees to Chinna’s grove. His superficial renunciations—his abstinence with salt and sugar, for instance—are now realized in the path of an ancient Hindu tradition: Vanaprastha. He will no longer have any connection to the world of material objects.
His commitment is briefly tested when he learns that Mali has been jailed for public drunkenness. India was in a state of prohibition during the period in which the novel is set, and Mali has therefore committed a crime. Jagan does not change his plans to retreat to the grove. He asks his cousin to help Mali when it is time, but to ensure that Mali spends enough time in prison that he will learn from the consequences of his actions. As the story concludes, he buys a ticket for Grace that will allow her to return to America.
The Vendor of Sweets is both serious and playful, which is common to Narayan’s literary work. It is both a challenge to India’s resistance to change, and an affectionate portrayal of the comfort that traditions and rituals can provide.
By R. K. Narayan