In the opening pages of the novel, the third-person omniscient narrator introduces Prem, struggling to maintain an illusion of dignity and beset with anxieties over how he will manage the family’s affairs. His marriage with Indu was arranged, according to Hindu custom, by his mother after his father’s death. He is in his first year as a Hindi teacher at Khanna Private College, a school for boys of wealthy families who need additional study before they can be accepted into better colleges. Although he has been married for a few months, Prem regards Indu as a stranger; she does little that suits him, and he is critical of even her visits with the Seigals, his upper-middle-class landlords who live in an apartment below his own modest quarters. Prem, characteristically lacking self-confidence, sees himself as a failure as both a husband and a teacher.
Prem defines his role as husband as only that of material provider. Embarassed by sexuality and Indu’s increasingly visible pregnancy, he thinks of the anticipated birth only in terms of higher salary, lower rent, or both. His bumbling, comic attempt to request a raise from Mr. Khanna, the aloof overbearing headmaster, ends without Prem having even made the request. When Prem attempts to ask the Seigals for reduced rent after the baby arrives, he suffers the same result: Prem cannot ask for what he wants, because he does not know what it is that he really wants. Isolated from his fellow teachers and indifferent to classroom discipline, Prem is befriended by Sohan Lal, a mentor figure, who has been a householder for much of his life. Lal’s response to the anxieties and responsibilities of family life, however, has been to adopt lower-middle-class living standards and periodically to visit a local guru, whose message, ironically, is the renunciation of mundane, material life—including that of the family. The message is anything but relevant to Prem. Trying to assert himself as a disciplinarian in order to impress Mr. Khanna and hoping to avoid what he perceives as the humdrum routine of Lal’s life, Prem reports several students who harass young girls passing the school. When he is confronted by Mr. Khanna’s inaction (he is afraid of losing the boys’ tuition), Prem retracts his accusations. Whatever Prem sets out to do, he seems destined to fail.
In the midst of his anxiety, Prem meets a young German, Hans Loewe, who sees Prem as a stereotype of Indian spiritualism. While Hans questions him about the philosophical virtues of Hinduism, Prem reports the material progress of independent India. Shortly after his new friendship with Hans, Prem accompanies Lal to the guru’s temple, the top floor of an old house. While Prem is moved by the guru’s happiness and devotion, the impression is fleeting. Completely isolated (even his weekly meetings with his friend Raj at the cinema have ended), Prem is forced to confront conflicting loyalties to his wife and to his mother, who plans to visit at the same time that Indu plans to return home, a plan that Prem has forbidden to no avail. To make matters worse, Prem has been invited to a tea party at his school—an...
(The entire section is 1282 words.)