The Vendor of Sweets is, in many ways, a story about the ways that marriages are built to tie up two people's autonomy together and ultimately to give husbands power and control over their wives. Jagan and Akimba's marriage is presented as traditional. Jagan, the husband, has complete control over Akimba, who serves him. This control extends to his ability to forbid her access to potentially life-saving medication for a disease she is suffering from.
When Akimba dies, Jagan's son, Mali, blames Jagan's commitment to tradition and to maintaining power over Akimba for her death. This causes Mali to reject traditional marriage in favor of something different. Mali finds westerners who also challenge these traditional views of marriage and eventually falls in love with, but does not marry, a woman named Grace, with whom he shares power cooperatively.
The Vendor of Sweets was written by R. K. Narayan and published in 1967. It tells the story of Jagan, who sells sweets in a fictional Indian town. His wife, Ambika, dies, leaving Jagan to care for their son, Mali.
The differing views on marriage is a central theme in this novel. Jagan is a traditionalist and, as such, ruled over his wife when she was alive. Mali blames his father for the death of his mother as, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Jagan insisted his wife only use natural remedies. Unable to forgive his father for his mother’s death, Mali rejects the traditional Indian way of life and moves to America to study writing.
In America, Mali meets Grace, an American-Korean woman. When he has finished his studies, he returns to India with Grace. However, Jagan is horrified to learn that not only are Mali and Grace not married, but that they have no plans to ever marry. Grace is also an independent woman not ruled by Mali. Jagan realizes that he must try to accept Mali’s way of life.
Several themes run throughout the pages of the book The Vendor of Sweets, but one of the most predominant ones is the theme of marriage. Because the novel deals with the dichotomy of modern versus traditional views of marriage, we see the theme interwoven into the characters' lives throughout the novel. Jagan and his son, Mali, begin to have very different views on marriage after Ambika, Jagan's wife and Mali's mother, passes away. Her death is brought to pass because of Jagan's insistence upon using natural remedies to cure her brain tumor. Because Jagan and Ambika's marriage is a very traditional one in the Hindu culture, Jagan's rule is absolute. Mali never forgives his father for his mother's death, as he realizes it is Jagan's authoritarian rule over Ambika that ultimately kills her. Traditional marriage is represented as males having complete dominance over females in this instance.
Mali turns away from the life he's known to a more "westernized" one and moves to America to become a writer. There, he falls in love with a woman named Grace. Mali and Grace move back to India to be with Jagan, and Jagan subsequently learns that, while Mali and Grace are partners and lovers, they are not legally married. This shocks Jagan and goes against everything he has ever been taught about marriage. It seems that contemporary marriages may sometimes show themselves as mere partnerships, without the legality or religious constraints of traditional ones. Jagan recognizes that Grace is not ruled by Mali as Jagan ruled Ambika, and this shows a very different kind of relationship that Jagan had never seen or experienced. The theme of marriage is illustrated through the conflict between traditional and contemporary marriage and partnerships. Jagan, who comes from an older generation, must come to terms with the fact that times are changing and that his views on marriage are slowly fading into history.